A PLACE TO INDULGE ONE’S SWEET TOOTH
FOR ART AND MORE
TEXT / PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEFAN JERMANN
WHEN I WALK INTO THE N’NAMDI CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY ART ON 52 EAST FOREST AVENUE IN THE SUGAR HILL ARTS DISTRICT I FIND ITS OWNER DOZING COMFORTABLY IN HIS OFFICE. IT TAKES A COUPLE OF MINUTES TO WAKE HIM FROM HIS SLUMBER BUT HE SOON REALIZES THAT HE HAD AN INTERVIEW SCHEDULED. MEET GEORGE N’NAMDI, A STURDY MAN WITH A CHILDISH SMILE AND ENGAGING DEMEANOR WHO IS EASILY RECOGNIZABLE BY THE SLIGHTLY RUMPLED PORK-PIE HAT HE WEARS.
I was introduced to George N’Namdi by Réna Bradley, an alert and dynamic woman with a background in architecture and community development who has her office next door and calls N’Namdi a mentor. Bradley guided me around Sugar Hill, a two-block neighborhood centrally located in Midtown that is home to cultural institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit). The area boasts older brick buildings that have undergone renovation to give them a second life. For example, at 71 Garfield, which has been designed to accommodate apartments and artists’ studios, architects placed solar arrays on the roof of the 1920s structure and installed a geothermal heating and cooling system. In addition to N’Namdi’s impressive exhibit space, his arts center hosts Seva, a vegetarian eatery with brick walls and exposed ductwork where patrons can order freshly made juices and Mexican-style veggie burritos and enjoy them on pale birch tables in a space that is as modern as the contemporary artworks N’Namdi is fond of promoting.
Next door to Seva one finds Orleans + Winder, a carefully curated fashion boutique that offers niche designer labels from Italy and France and a cool t-shirt collection by local Detroit designer Roslyn Karamoko who uses a French tagline for her clothes: “Detroit c’est le nouveau noir” (Detroit is the new black). A bit further back is a tea shop that offers hundreds of the most exquisite teas along with locally produced crafts and artworks. It’s a bohemian hangout where artists, writers and intellectuals congregate and will soon be joined by a new wine bar for those in need of something stronger to fuel their conversations.
For N’Namdi, who now looks refreshed after his siesta, this is part of his longstanding effort – he first dabbled in collecting art when he was at college in the 1970s – to bring a cultural renaissance to Detroit. It started in 2010 when he inaugurated his gallery, which he had previously moved out of the city to Birmingham, a wealthy enclave in Detroit’s suburbs, at its current location, a low-slung building once home to an auto dealership that features a beautifully restored pine wood ceiling. “People told us we were nuts for moving back and I told them that no, this is going to be it,” says N'Namdi. “We were part of the catalyst that put Midtown in high gear.”
His 16’000 square foot gallery includes four exhibition spaces, with indoor and outdoor performance areas, and is central to his efforts to back gifted contemporary abstract artists from the African-American community. “Abstract African American painting is like jazz. It might take a while before the artists receive the credit they deserve,” he says with a knowing look while giving a tour of the venue. Today, he possesses one of the finest private collections of African-American art in the world and has amassed pieces in every genre that cover more than a century of art. Using his curatorial eye he has put together a powerful visual tool to educate audiences on the contributions of people of African descent to the discourse of modern art.
“I see art as a link to the intellect. You gain an emotional connection but it starts off as an intellectual connection,” adds N’Namdi, who holds a PhD in psychology but opted to follow his love of art and open his first gallery in downtown Detroit in 1981.
His return to the city center was rooted in his desire to strengthen the cultural fabric of a city that had suffered its fair share of hard knocks. “To me galleries need to be in urban centers, not in suburbia. It felt like we were more of a boutique than a gallery out there.” Settling in Sugar Hill was a no-brainer for him, a neighborhood whose name pays homage to the Sugar Hill district in New York’s Harlem, which was the epicenter of a cultural boom for African Americans in the early 20th century.
In the 1940s, many African Americans flocked to Detroit and its version of Sugar Hill became a popular venue for entertainment. The district hosted the famous Flame Show Bar, the Pelican Lounge, Sonny Wilson's Mark Twain Hotel and many other African American-owned nightclubs and lounges. Sonny Wilson was widely regarded as the unofficial "mayor" of Detroit's famous Paradise Valley, an area that came alive at night with men dressed in zoot suits and Stetson hats out in search of a dance partner and a good time. It had been home to several prohibition-era speakeasies, after-hour music clubs and a very robust bohemian arts community.
The development of Sugar Hill started long before Midtown’s recent resurgence. The groundwork for Sugar Hill was laid out by the urban activists Ernie Zachary and Diane Van Buren. The husband-and-wife team were pre-redevelopment pioneers and they funded lots of redevelopment on brownfield sites out of their own pocket. Soon, however, they figured out how to creatively finance their initiatives by becoming experts on federal and state redevelopment grants. They got institutional support from the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University and incentives from the New Economy Initiative. Midtown Inc.’s Sue Mosey, who is to date probably the most important urban developer in the area, has supported Sugar Hill extensively and people like N’Namdi are working hard to develop this creative oasis for future generations.
While N’namdi likes to maintain a low-key profile, it’s clear that he has become an important player in the arts business. Some of the artwork he displays could easily fetch six-figure sums and many of the names he represents are stars in the industry. As much as he is a smart businessman, he comes across as someone who deeply cares for the community and the greater good. Proof of this is a new endeavor he, together with other key players in the industry, is eager to establish for the city’s culture scene: the West End Gallery District. This new gallery neighborhood is to run along the Grand River Corridor between Canfield Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and where multiple galleries will be able to group together in one area to allow local artists to show their work. “Midtown is more home to the institutional players like the Detroit Institute of Arts or the Museum of Contemporary Art but not so much to smaller galleries,” explains N’Namdi. The idea here is to create an entire district where people can stroll and visit smaller galleries – initially there will be between six and ten – and good restaurants.
The motivation behind his moves to acquire property along Grand River is twofold: to increase the city’s cultural footprint and to fight against rapid gentrification in the area.
N’Namdi is concerned that the rapid development in Midtown may wind up erasing a fair chunk of what makes Detroit tick. He doesn’t want to see city blocks losing their grit and edginess and turning into something similar to the suburban downtowns of nearby Birmingham and Royal Oak. He sees fewer African American business and property owners in the greater downtown area and he believes that a diversity of stakeholders is vital to keeping the city’s unique spirit alive – the same city that gave us musical genres like Motown and Techno.
“They have to make sure they include everybody. They have to make sure they don’t lose this part of Detroit. That’s why people come to Detroit — it has that Motown soul. It’s part of the city. You don’t want to marginalize it; you want to play up on it. You travel because of a city’s funk. You go to New Orleans, why? Because of the funk. You don’t want Detroit to be losing its funk.”
After chatting with George, Réna Bradley returns to take me to see one more place. After a ten-minute walk we are sitting in the impressive courtyard café at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The space feels like sitting in a cathedral. For Bradley, who spent a stint living in the nation’s capital and getting her degree in architecture, it’s a great treat to come back home and find a rebirth, not to mention a rebuild, underway. “I'm hesitant to say what Detroit can learn from other places because you rebuild a city based on its own character and history,” she says. "Still, where there’s hope and financial investment of the right kind progress can happen. You have to be patient, but it’s achievable."