I’ll try to go through this tangled tale as best I can. If someone has better information, I’ll keep this project fluid for a while. This means that there’ll be revisions, additions and subtractions here.
This is mostly all visual art and mostly “Detroit proper.” Yet poetry, theatre, music and the suburbs may all make their guest appearances. This, Part One covers, roughly 1978 to 1990. The PHYSICAL exhibition that goes with this will soon be lost and gone. See it if you can.
I’d like to start by saying a little about how I got into art and the Detroit art scene.
In the 1970s I was on the staff of the Catacombs Coffee House in Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood. I was part of a vibrant creative scene. Visual art was only a small part of this. Yet it was so wild and surprising. People flocked to it from all around the Detroit area. It included music, cinema, theatre, poetry, comedy and much more.
Around this time, my interest in Surrealism and in art history sparked my interest in making art. I started to go to a lot of art galleries. These included the Artist’s Guild of Detroit, at Second and Grand Boulevard. The Feigenson Gallery was nearby. There were also galleries downtown. This was in 1977 or 1978. I don’t drive, so usually I’d ride the buses all over. The bus was my key to adventure, as cars are to most people.
Edgar Yaeger also lived in my neighborhood, Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers area. He had painted murals for the WPA. He also had an association with the Scarab Club and a long, productive career. He and his friend, Frederick J. Kayser, were the first painters that I knew. Edgar lived to the age 93.
By 1980, I was showing my own work in galleries as well. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few exhibits! I’ll try to reconstruct the last 35 years or so from memory, from my notes and other sources.
A History of Detroit’s Visual Arts Scene, Part One
Eventually, the City of Detroit became interested in art and culture. The Detroit Institute of Arts started out on Jefferson Avenue in 1885. In 1927, it moved to larger quarters, on Woodward.
In 1932 and 33, Diego Rivera painted his Detroit Industry murals at the D.I.A. In 1952, a group fought to have them covered or destroyed. The murals were saved , but a temporary disclaimer was installed.
Pewabic Pottery opened in 1903. The Scarab Club began in 1907. The Detroit Artist’s Market started in 1927. All three of these are still going strong.
The College for Creative Studies started around 1906 as the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. In 1958, it moved to its present location in the Cultural Center neighborhood. In 1975 it changed its name to the Center for Creative Studies. In 2001 it became The College for Creative Studies.
Wayne State University has long had a solid arts program as well. Marygrove College also offers art education and training. All three have art galleries and put on an array of art exhibits.
The Museums and Universities all have some degree of money, people and power behind them. They’re the big players.
It’s always been a challenge to get the D.I.A. and the universities to support local artists in a wider sense. The museum tends to support and exhibit those who first become well known nationally.
There have been exceptions and experiments. There used to be galleries for local artist’s work. Yet local musicians, poets and performers often seem to get more attention and support there than local visual artists do.
The schools tend to support their own students and alumnae. This is understandable in a way. Yet it’s always great to have them surprise us and include “choice outsiders.” It’s not easy to be open and to see the wider picture.
There were usually two or three well established galleries around. There were also a few independent and underground galleries.
Amazingly, in 1984 the City Arts Quarterly could only come up with eleven “real galleries” and seven “ringers.” Granted, this was just Detroit proper. It seems that there are at least twice as many now.
The Detroit Artist’s Workshop was a sign of things to come. It started in the early 1960’s. Both the rock poster/ graphic design paths and the 1960’s Willis Gallery artists see to have connections with this group. I was young for most 1960’s culture. I do recall “driving through” Plum Street in days as a hippie haven/heaven.
The Willis Gallery started in the 1960’s. Eventually, a lot of the original Willis Gallery artists went with Jackie Feigenson to her gallery in the Fisher Building. She was married to Mort Feigenson. He was part of the family that started the Faygo soda pop company. First it was the Feigenson and soon changed to just the Feigenson Gallery. Then, in 1981 the Willis Gallery reopened, in the site now occupied by the Avalon Bakery. It continued into the 1990s.
There were others around too but the main players seemed to be City Arts Gallery, the Detroit Focus Gallery, the Scarab Club and the Detroit Artist’s Market. There was also art shown on the Seventh floor of the J.L. Hudson’s Downtown store. They had a gallery sponsored by the Artist’s Market. I believe that this was near the art supply department of the store.
There were good exhibits at the universities such as Wayne State, Marygrove and CCS.
There were always galleries in Detroit’s suburbs as well. These included The Susanne Hillberry Gallery which started in Birmingham and ended up in Ferndale. There was the Park West Gallery in Southfield. I’ll likely explore this eventually yet for now I’m focusing on Detroit.
There were a number of forces in the air then, so vital and so sweet: the new Detroit Film Theatre, Cass City Cinema, the Freezer Theatre, the Grinning Duck Club, Alvin’s, the Stray Dog Saloon, the Song Shop Saloon,the Cass Corridor Food Co-op, the Dally in the Alley, the Fourth Street Fair, the Fifth Estate, the Detroit Metro Times, the Ann Arbor Sun and Cobb’s Corner Bar. I believe that the Horizons in Poetry readings series started at Cobb’s.
There was a truly vital scene going on. These are but a few of my best remembered spots of those early days.
In the 1980s, a number of independent galleries opened up. The Willis Gallery reopened. The Michigan Gallery came into its own in the 1980’s and held many large and popular exhibits.
From 1985 to 1989 (or so) the 55 Peterboro Gallery was open. This was run by Sue Logan, Dave Roberts and Mary Meserve. It was in a house between Peterboro and Cass. Sometimes they’d hold events in the backyard. These included an outdoor sculpture show.
In 1986 Tyree Guyton, his wife Karen and his grandfather Sam Mackey started the Heidelberg Project. This inspired local artists and helped them to connect with each other. Early on, we were just glad that it was there.
I believe that the Trobar Gallery opened in 1987. It was on Second near the Bronx Bar. The who ran it included Alvaro Jurado, Bryant Tillman, Stella Garner, Charles Gervin, Judith Kunesh and Kevin Watson. I showed there in 1988 and did my first puppet plays there.
Joe Fugate’s CADE Gallery was open on Agnes Street near Indian Village. It later moved to Royal Oak.
The Detroit Focus Gallery had a string of strong exhibits. They were in Greektown and I showed there in the early 1980’s.
In 1983 Olayami Dabls and his wife opened Perette’s Africa. In 1985 George N’amdi opened the G.R. N’amdi Gallery. Both were in the David Whitney Building. Both are still going today, in different locations.
A partial list of some memorable exhibits from this time: Demolished by Neglect, 1987/ No Brand Art, held at several venues, in various years/ and the Box Shows at the Willis Gallery. I’ll add more here later.
Part Three of this, the Facebook page:
Information on the Exhibit:
The Willis Gallery: