Should we stay or should we go?
By Rebecca Mazzei
From: kelli b kavanaugh
Sent: Wednesday, August 08, 2007 10:39 AM
Subject: you gotta love...
a kick from someone on the way out the door.
On 8/8/07, Rebecca Mazzei
Thanks for the heads up. I'm going to start packing my bags. Where are you moving to?
On 8/8/07, Kelli B. Kavanaugh wrote:
I was thinking Brooklyn . Williamsburg , then when I get married and start spawning, I'll head over to Park Slope.
No, seriously. Come on.
That was my reaction to Jonnelle Marte’s recent story in The Detroit News: “Detroit’s art scene fades: Area leaders see young talent moving away and local galleries closing.” With a headline like that, why bother writing the article?
The dailies deal in disaster, so this piece in the Metro section of the Aug. 8 edition, quoting a precious few artists and gallery owners about the scene’s sure demise, isn’t a surprise. But talk about jumping the gun! Jesus. First the Statler Hotel is demolished, and now artist and blogger Ann Gordon is leaving. What will Detroit do?
Gordon’s Yacht Club Gallery in Hamtramck was always supposed to be temporary; she had been planning on leaving. Her presence here has been enlivening, but does her leaving warrant a story about a cross-town trend? Here are some facts about the actual growth of arts in the Detroit area: Enrollment in the art departments at Wayne State University and College for Creative studies is increasing each year. And as several artists and critics have pointed out in bulk e-mails back and forth since Marte’s piece was published last week, MoCAD has done a lot to reinvigorate and extend the community with enterprising programming and space to roam. There are more galleries and artists studios popping up at Russell Industrial Center . For the past few years at Motor City Brewery on Canfield, Graem Whyte has consistently put up weekly exhibitions by local artists selling affordable stuff. I’ve bought at least five pieces from those shows. I hear that maybe they’ll be closing “This Week In Art” in the next year or so, simply because it has run a good long course. Fine. Now someone do something else.
After I let Marte’s story settle in to my consciousness, a couple of thoughts occurred to me. Yes, I know of a few creative types who are moving or who have recently moved — for love, for school, for work, for a change of scenery. It happens all the time, in every city. Some come back, some keep moving. Yes, again, people seem to move more from Detroit than to it. But those who stay seem totally fierce about it and have committed themselves to the community in remarkable ways. A handful of examples: Local artist Billy O’Bryan regularly volunteers at the Catherine Ferguson Academy and 555 Gallery, riding his bike around town and stopping wherever his gut tells him to. Artist James Dozier shows up at every gallery opening and spends his money on several live performances each week. And Museum of New Art ’s Jef Bourgeau has just initiated “Moving Walls,” a program that will supposedly send local art works off to galleries in other cities and countries, and bring art to Pontiac from elsewhere as well.
These past few months, two friends I thought I’d lost forever have moved back to Detroit — one’s a writer from Mississippi and another is a grad student who’s glad to be out of L.A. , tickled to have found a pad in a dreamy corner of Detroit , on Fourth Street . But whatever — this news, like Marte’s quotes, is anecdotal evidence. Until the census starts tracking artists the way it does other vital statistics, it’ll be hard to tell for sure who’s coming and going.
There are problems with our art scene. Our gallery owners, those with money and good taste, are not really leaders or risk-takers. With a couple of exceptions (George N’Namdi and Aaron Timlin come to mind), they follow the clients or potential clients in the suburbs who would rather spend their paychecks on gadgets and vacations. Instead of supporting one another with art fairs or group events, gallerists struggle for their share or make their money out of town by selling and trading art. It’s gross.
But on the other hand, at least our system of continual rebirth never grows stale. The art marketplace existent in most big cities is a racket. If you want a scene with the usual schlock in a district on a boardwalk, leave. Please. What we have here in Detroit is a different model, one without strollers and pugs caballed on the sidewalks. After living in Chicago , I’m sick of tripping over heels and wheels. I’d rather hang out some place where you can still smoke and draw on the walls.
Now, some of you want to sell your art. That’s understandable. So sell it. On the streets or direct from your studio wall. It works (just ask Gwen Joy). Start a gallery in one of the dozens of abandoned buildings. Sit yourself on the steps at the DIA and set up shop. No shit. A homeless gal in Chicago named Lee Godie made a huge name for herself that way in the 1980s and '90s, selling portraits to tuition-paying art students at the front door of the Art Institute of Chicago, telling them she would someday be famous. She was right. She lived to see herself become the inspired icon she deserved to be (with help later in life from dealers who naturally wanted in on the action after they noticed the underground fuss).
Why do you need a dealer to do all the work for you? Do you think getting your art in a gallery sanctifies it? And why do we keep blaming a depressed art community on a lack of galleries? I’ve seen more than enough work — mind-blowing stuff and semi-competent stuff — hung up around here. Some of the shit that flies today wouldn’t have worked 20 years ago — just ask those who’ve been around for a while. The point is, our galleries definitely have got their bases covered. As a matter of fact, I’m stretching to think of one local artist who has not shown somewhere around here. Besides, if you’re a young artist who has just “emerged” from art school, you shouldn’t be focused on exhibiting now anyway. It’s much too soon to be branded. Try evolving first.
We (that “We” includes the city and state) need to support the art workers who are leveling the playing field — like teachers. Tons of talented creative writers in Detroit sustain their passion while receiving a paycheck from educating kids or working for a non-profit. And they find time to toss their heart and soul into that work, too, starting up mags with students and getting budding poets to publish. Get this: that day job actually inspires them. Talk to any local author and you’ll find the literary community is thriving with only a handful of indie publishers who are breaking their own banks to join in the torturous fun. So ask yourself, artist, do you really want to live as an artist or do you want an easy living? I’m inspired by European artists and musicians who move here to live very modestly -- and quite comfortably. They don’t care what sells, as long as they keep creating and sharing. It's a differnt kind of profit.
You know what makes Detroit great? People who infiltrate. We’ve got a ton of you here. If you are truly inspired from within, then it shouldn’t matter where you live, so long as you live deeply and suck the marrow out.
Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.