Passenger breathes art, new life into a long-vacant Detroit space

Guess what was the leading industry in Detroit in the 1890s? No fair googling. Tobacco. Some of the old buildings you see around the city once housed manufacturing space for makers of cigars and other tobacco products.

In 1887, Brown Brothers Cigars manufactured cigars in a five-story brick building at 119 State St. in Detroit. Obviously, Detroit’s not a tobacco town any more. The city’s been through all kinds of economic ups and downs since the men and women rolled stogies in the Capitol Park neighborhood.

Now, after years of vacancy and neglect, the old building is getting new life as Passenger, a nonprofit space for supporting the city’s art, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.

Artists and husband-wife team Brian Barr and Lauren Rice are behind Passenger. They ultimately plan a contemporary art center with a first floor gallery with huge, open windows. Upstairs, the other four floors will have live/work spaces and house a planned artist residency program.

So far, in just its first few months, Passenger has already housed several exhibits and events, including its current show, "Abstracticus," which is celebrating an opening on Tuesday, Nov. 4.

Passenger’s goal, Barr says, is to provide a place for the arts community to thrive “by supporting Detroit artists in a way with higher visibility and a marquee space downtown.”

The gallery’s first floor looks out onto Capitol Park, which has been a hub of Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services’ investments and plans. The building itself at 119 State is owned by Gilbert, who is leasing it to Passenger at no cost. Barr says their support has been amazing.

With a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Barr and Rice have been able to host a few initial events. The plan, Barr says, is to find more funding and support to launch 4-month-long residencies for artists from all over the country to live and work in the city. He also needs to finish the residential part of the project, and plan that income from renting out live/work spaces on the floors above the gallery will help cover costs of the residencies and hosting innovative contemporary art shows in the gallery.

Coming home

Barr grew up on Detroit’s East Side. he went to College for Creative Studies for his undergraduate work, then, like many of his cohorts, left for bigger cities and opportunities elsewhere. But, in 2008, he came back to Detroit to teach at CCS.

“It was kind of a tough decision. Most of my friends and peers who were from Detroit who had ambition were leaving,” he says. But in coming home to Detroit, Barr and Rice, who is from Atlanta, fell in love with it.

“Me re-falling in love with the city and my wife adopting it, and really loving it, we really got the potential it has,” Barr says.

However, the two felt like the city could still use more support for working artists.

“Other cities had higher caliber infrastructure for the arts community,” he says. Detroit lacked “a space that can really bring in artists for a prolonged period of time.”

He says there is much fundraising still to do to work on the residential and work spaces, and they don’t yet have a timeline for when the residencies could begin. “Abstracticus,” though, is a taste of what’s to come. And Barr is very excited to see his vision coming alive.

The details: “Abstracticus” runs through Nov. 14, 2014, at Passenger. "The idea is that in a digital age both images and words about art are traveling around the world a billion times in a nanosecond. The context changes as it is shared — it’s a destabilized context for how we receive art,” Barr says.

Artists in the show include: Rebecca Gilbert, Laith Karmo, Julia Klein, Kylie Lockwood, Lauren Rice and Graem Whyte
The opening reception will be from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. The closing reception is 5-8 p.m. Nov. 14. Contact Passenger for an appointment for other viewing times. Parking is available in the garage behind PASSENGER located on Michigan Avenue between Griswold and Shelby.

This story originally appeared on, the experience engine for Southeast Michigan.
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