A History of Detroit’s Visual Arts Scene, the Essay (Part One)

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.

Maybe someday I’ll write a book about all this, or someone else will.  If it’s someone else, I’m sure that my research will be of some help.

This project is A History of Detroit’s Visual Arts Scene. Take One is an actual exhibit of papers and objects.  Take Two is this two part essay.  Take Three is a facebook page.

This is mostly all visual art and mostly “Detroit proper.”  Yet poetry, theatre, music and the suburbs may all make their guest appearances. 

In an effort to keep things brief and concise, I don’t mention artists by name unless they helped run a gallery or I show an image of their work.  I name-checked most of them in the previous post.  That said, the Detroit art scene was full of the most amazing and colorful characters.  There have been some vibrant personalities and some great oddballs.

After a brief recap of previous events, 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.  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.

Art by Paul Schwartz, 1970s (at the Feigenson Gallery in the Fisher Building)

Art by Paul Schwartz, late 1970s  (at the Feigenson Gallery in the Fisher Building)

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 DIA.  In 1952, a group fought to have them covered or destroyed.  The murals were saved, but a disclaimer was installed.

Pewabic Pottery opened in 1903.  The Scarab Club began in 1907. The Detroit Artist’s Market started in 1932.  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.

Sculpture by Bob Sestok
Sculpture by Bob Sestok (at the Feigenson Gallery)

It’s always been a challenge to get the Detroit Institute of Arts 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 the 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 always independent and underground galleries as well.

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.

A piece titled "I Remember how to Fly" by Robert Bielat

A piece titled “I Remember how to Fly” by Robert Bielat (at the CADE Gallery)

The Detroit Artist’s Workshop was a sign of things to come.  It started in the early 1960s.  Both the rock poster/ graphic design paths and the early Willis Gallery artists have ties with this group.   They came next.  They all had the spirit of the times.  I was too young to experience most of the 1960s culture.  I do recall “driving through” Plum Street in days as a hippie haven/heaven.

The Willis Gallery started in the late 1960s.  It went on into the 1970s.  Eventually, it closed.  In the late 1970s, some 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-Rosenstein Gallery 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.  These were so vital and so sweet.  They included 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.  The Horizons in Poetry readings series started at Cobb’s.

The art reporting seemed much stronger and more present than it does now.  Joy Hakanson Colby write about local art for the Detroit News Marsha Miro did the same for the Detroit Free Press Then there was independent work in such publications as Detroit Artist’s Monthly.

There was a truly vital scene going on.  These are but a few of my best remembered spots of those early days.

There were so many different approaches, scenes, neighborhoods, styles, approaches, ethnic groups and connected collectives.  Often, they’d overlap and intermingle.

In the 1980s, a number of independent galleries opened up.  The Willis Gallery reopened.  Artists would take turns running it and organizing shows.  The Michigan Gallery came into its own in the 1980s and held many large and popular  exhibits.  It was largely run by Carl Kamulski and Diana Alva.  Both spaces continued into the 1990s.

From 1985 to 1989 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 and various performances.

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.

The Trobar Gallery opened in 1987.  It was on Second near the Bronx Bar.  Those 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 1980s.

In 1983 Olayami Dabls and his wife S. Jill Miller-Lewis opened Dabls-Perette’s African Gallery.  In 1985 George N’namdi opened the G.R. N’namdi Gallery.  Both were in the David Whitney Building.  Both are still going today, in different locations.

To be continued…..

George N'namdi

George N’namdi

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.

A painting by Bradley Jones, 1989

A painting by Bradley Jones, 1989 (at the Willis Gallery)

Part Three of this, the Facebook page:


Information on the Exhibit:


The Willis Gallery:


Detroit Focus:


7 Responses to “A History of Detroit’s Visual Arts Scene, the Essay (Part One)”

  1. Irene z will Says:

    It seems women play a small roll, if any…

  2. artremedy20 Says:

    6 out of 15 people that I listed as running the galleries were women. I’m sure women were involved with running Detroit Focus too, Gere Baskin right? I can’t find information but I could add her name. I try to add all the women I can but the times were the times.

  3. artremedy20 Says:

    Then, the previous post with artist’s names named: there are about 150 artist’s names named thus far. Over 90 are women so this is more than half, close to two-thirds, not bad….

  4. carole alter Says:

    I am happily a painter whose work was shown at the Feigenson Gallery in the ’80s. Great reviews were given my work. Because of them, I was then shown in Chicago’s Exposition.
    Jackie Feigenson’s death was a great loss.
    Carole Alter

  5. artremedy20 Says:

    Thanks for the comment. A Feigenson Gallery postcard of your work was in this exhibit. I used to go there often.

  6. What’s Going on With the Visual Arts Scene in Detroit? | for art and artists Says:

    […] that, I have a History of Detroit’s Visual Arts Scene facebook page and have written several blog posts.  I also did a physical exhibition at the University of Detroit Mercy in the Summer of […]

  7. A Look at the Visual Arts Scene in Detroit | for art and artists Says:

    […] https://artremedy20.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/a-history-of-detroits-visual-arts-scene-the-essay-part-… […]

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