Detroiter Valerie Irwin’s life has revolved around the arts. Her appreciation began in middle school, when she started drawing and continued into adulthood when she became an elementary school teacher. After she met her husband, Council Irwin Jr., they began collecting art together.
Irwin and her late husband, who was a social entrepreneur and owner of Irwin Travel Agency in Detroit, collected art from around the world and advocated for working artists. Together, they lived a globe-trotting life, boarding international flights and meeting with foreign dignitaries eager to boost their countries’ tourism economy. On her first visit to Africa, Irwin was struck by the art from “the homeland,” she recalls.
These experiences culminated in the opening of the Irwin House Global Art Center and Gallery in September 2018 on West Grand Boulevard, just a mile down the street from the Motown Museum. It was a project years in the making, with the vision to find a home for the couple's art collection.
The gallery is a community gathering space that aims to provide exposure for emerging and underrepresented artists as well as a platform to support local talent. The space also hosts solo and group exhibitions, an artist-in-residency program, and workshops. This summer, the gallery plans to activate the outdoor space, says Omo Misha, gallery director and Irwin’s niece. The two opened the gallery together.
“We are creating opportunities for people to learn about history, culture, and different ways of thinking. We want to develop healthy individuals who are able to think critically and express themselves, which is vital,” Misha says.
Rehabilitating the house has been the biggest challenge in transforming the space for the gallery. Before the Irwins began renovation, the property, which sits next to Irwin Real Estate, Insurance and Travel Agency, was previously a house and then later a doctor’s office. Although repairs and updates are still needed, Misha says activating the exhibition space now creates a platform accessible for the residents in the neighborhood.
Misha says the gallery wants “people to bring their ideas as we provide a place to make them happen.”
Irwin House has been well received in the arts community since its premiere event SuperNatural Woman: Tribute to the Queen in 2018, an exhibit dedicated to Aretha Franklin. The singer’s death prompted the gallery to open several months early.
The exhibit featured paintings, sculpture, photography, and installations from artists such as Ingrid LaFleur, Marsha Philpot, Jason Phillips, Kim Hunter, and more. Detroit native John Sims was the co-curator with Misha and the gallery’s first artist-in-residence who developed a three-part multimedia project titled Sorrento: Portrait of a Detroit Block, inspired by his west-side upbringing.
“The public use of the Irwin House was an affirmation that Blacks are also part of the arts and cultural activities taking place in the city today,” says Philpot, also known as Marsha Music.
Philpot says she was touched by how the Irwin House property was repurposed from the doctor's office into an arts space after her first visit.
“The boulevard is a very grand street, although it has seen better days and can be rough around the edges in spots,” she said. “It is a place of great achievement for the people who owned those homes decades ago, a street of African American commerce and African American living.”
The gallery aims to foster conversations and showcase diverse viewpoints. The gallery’s most recent exhibit, Detroit Future History, ended last month with a series of events, performances, and installations. One of the exhibition’s participating artists was Dolores Slowinski, who takes needlework to paper. Her craft started with the family tradition of egg decorations with wax, which she evolved into her own technique since then.
Slowinski’s participation in Detroit Future History was personal. Her Polish American family was one of the white families who stayed in Detroit after the 1967 riots. Slowinski used census data with black and white thread to show how demographics of Detroit changed from a majority white city to a predominantly Black city.
“My art piece shows what the past looked like for people of the future by taking hard data and making it visual,” she says.
Aside from showcasing African American art, one of the gallery’s larger goals is to bolster the gallery’s surrounding neighborhoods including Virginia Park, LaSalle Gardens, and NW Goldberg.
As the neighborhood faces rapid change, Misha says the gallery plays an important role. “As this neighborhood develops, in some instances where gentrification is happening new voices are coming in,” she says, “we want to be sure as change happens here, that we maintain a voice and are part of the change.”
This article is part of our Equitable Development series, in partnership with Henry Ford Health System, where we explore neighborhood progress and impact of Henry Ford Health System and community partners. Stories illustrate growing an inclusive Detroit in a way that allows people from all races, classes, and abilities to participate and benefit.