DETROIT ART SCENE
TEXT / PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEFAN JERMANN
FOR DECADES NEW YORK WAS SEEN AS THE CENTER OF THE ART UNIVERSE IN THE UNITED STATES BUT TODAY THERE’S A CREATIVE ENERGY BEING EMITTED FROM THE MOTOR CITY THAT HAS ARTISTS EVERYWHERE TAKING NOTICE. BIG EMPTY INDUSTRIAL SPACES IDEAL FOR HOSTING ONE’S STUDIO OR SETTING UP A PERFORMANCE ART CENTER IS ONE FACTOR. ADD TO THAT THE CHEAP PRICES FOR SUCH REAL ESTATE AND IT’S NO WONDER ARTISTS ARE DECAMPING FROM BROOKLYN AND OTHER CREATIVE HUBS TO DETROIT – ONE NEW YORK GALLERY THAT HAS RECENTLY MOVED TO THE CITY EVEN WANTS TO LAUNCH A DETROIT BIENNIAL ON ART IN 2016.
While the world of private galleries, patrons and benefactors is beginning to gain momentum here, one should remember that public art has always been welcome in Detroit. In 1932, Mexican artist Diego Rivera was invited by the Detroit Institute of Arts, with the help of a generous contribution by Edsel Ford, to create his impressive 27-panel mural that captured the city’s industrial might, a work that has left a lasting impression. The collection of the DIA is impressive to say the least, hosting great names from Rembrandt to Picasso. When the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013, the DIA collection made headlines because one city official floated the idea of repaying some of Detroit’s debts by selling off some of the 65,000-piece collection held by DIA. Thankfully, the collection, worth several billion dollars, remains intact and residents are still able to enjoy its many prized works, including the “The Window” by Henri Matisse, a piece valued at a mindboggling $150 million.
MIRUS had the chance to speak to artists, a curator and a gallery director in Detroit to take the pulse of the city’s arts scene. One was Robert Sestok, a local icon of sorts who is known for his massive metal sculptures that are on display at the Midtown City Sculpture Park he opened this summer. Then there’s Nancy Barr, photography curator at the DIA, who tells us about one of her favorite female photographers who is documenting Detroiters.
Finally, there’s John Michaels, a painter who is an artist in residence at the esteemed Scarab Club, a famed local institution that has welcomed the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Norman Rockwell and Matthew Barney.
Companies may fail, governments may collapse, but true artists continue their mission no matter whether the economy is in a boom or bust. For now, one thing seems clear: the creative talent in Detroit today is bubbling over and with new venues and galleries eager to open the Motor City may soon become a destination for cutting-edge culture.
To understand the change underway in Detroit’s cultural scene visitors need to make their way to a patch of green space on Alexandrine Street in Midtown. When I pull up to Robert Sestok’s City Sculpture Park, a newspaper reporter from The Detroit News is interviewing him. “This is my field, and my crops are growing,” explains Sestok to the journalist. His 27 “crops” aren’t stalks of corn but twisting towers of recycled steel, some as high as 12 feet, that populate this once vacant strip of Midtown. After his interview session, Sestok invites me to his studio, where piles of metal are stacked up and various bits of welding equipment sit amid what resembles an adult playground. It’s clear that Sestok is keen for the public to engage with his abstract sculptures. It is reminiscent of Jean Tinguely or Alexander Calder. I discover that the sculpture park arose more out of necessity and coincidence than the need for Sestok to stroke his own ego. The space in his backyard was getting too small for all of his works so Sestok started mowing the lawn on the empty lots close to his studio. In the end, the idea for a sculpture garden seemed the natural thing to do. After getting a grant from Midtown Inc. and some donations, the vacant plot was purchased and opened to the public this summer. Having been trained as a ceramicist, I ask Sestok why he wound up working with metal sculptures. “It’s instant gratification,” he replies. “Fire and metal is a magical kind of thing.”
Built in 1927 the Detroit Institute of Arts cultural institution is perhaps best known by out-of-towners for the frescoes of Diego Rivera and other great paintings of the past but the contemporary photography exhibit is worth a look. When I meet with Nancy Barr, the curator of photography, she takes me down to the basement where the archives are housed and pulls out some of her favorite imagery from hardwood shelves that appear to be a century old. I notice that there is a large collection of framed photographs still waiting to be archived and Barr mentions that they are hoping to find exhibit space somewhere to feature them. Barr is particularly proud of her exhibits. There’s the work of Dutch-born photographer Corine Vermeulen, who studied in Detroit and decided to return here a decade ago to establish herself as a visual artist. Vermeulen set up a temporary walk-in studio where she portrayed Detroiters from all walks of life: cyclists from the East Side Riders club, staff from Recycle Here! and kids from a local school. The museum started collecting photography in the 1950s and the collection grew rapidly in the 1980s with names such as Irving Penn and Charles Sheeler. To date, there are some 11,000 images in the permanent collection of the DIA and each year roughly 50 new pieces are acquired. In 1983 a separate photo gallery was unveiled but the DIA has put on larger shows using other spaces in its complex to feature the work of artists such as Richard Avedon, Gordon Parks and Annie Leibovitz. What’s more, within the building’s impressive Beaux-Arts architecture there are 100-odd galleries but photographers will enjoy the natural light that filters in from the glass roof above the Kresge Court, an enclosed courtyard that offers a spot to unwind with a coffee after taking in a spot of culture.
Right behind the DIA on 217 Farnsworth, one finds a rather stout three-story rectangular structure in red brick that is home to the Scarab Club, the city’s oldest arts club. Formed in 1913, the venue was initially open only to male artists. When architect Lancelot Sukert built the Scarab Club’s current home in 1928, he planned space for galleries, lounges, meeting halls and artists’ studios. Of particular interest, as gallery director Treena Flannery Ericson points out, are the signed wooden ceiling beams that show the names of artists who have passed through its doors. Those who have left their mark here include Marcel Duchamp, Norman Rockwell, Diego Rivera and Rivera’s protégé Steve “Pablo” Davis.
On the top floor of the Scarab Club, one finds six artist studios where MIRUS meets John Michaels, one of the current tenants. A native Detroiter who left for New York when he was 24, Michaels is a returnee and evidence that the unique energy offered by Detroit as it rebuilds itself makes it an appealing destination for artists. An internationally exhibited artist, Michaels currently focuses on the idea of repetition in his oil paintings. When asked why he came back to Detroit, his answer is straightforward: “There are great characters and a lot of freedom here. If you want to be creative, you can truly make it here.”
Michaels, who also teaches fine art at the College for Creative Studies, asks whether I have seen some of the old factories and ruins. He has seen the growth in interest from people everywhere to come and understand the unique phenomenon going on today in the city, a place that is looking to renew, an urban phoenix emerging from the ashes one might say. He brings up an interesting point about the ruins, mentioning that it is a natural sort of thing. For instance, two centuries ago the British in Italy were intensely studying Roman ruins, eager to understand how past civilizations lived and what we could learn from them. Suddenly Michaels interrupts his line of thought because remembers that he has an appointment to see a house he wants to buy. On his way out of the Scarab Club he says: “You know I would have never thought about buying a house because in New York that was never an option. Here in Detroit it is possible.”