A huge, well-lighted place 

Susanne Hilberry crosses Livernois in Ferndale with an armload of Cokes. They’re for the contractors pouring the cement sidewalk in front of her new gallery, a major renovation project that’s been under way since September. It’s an all-consuming brainchild that has preoccupied this svelte veteran of the art scene since she closed her Birmingham location in November 2000.

“I don’t ever realize how long it was,” says Hilberry, slightly shocked and amused at how the decades have flown, “until some young person says ‘I understand you have an art gallery,’ and you say, ‘Yes, I opened it in 1976’ — most of them weren’t born yet and that look comes over their faces.”

The original Susanne Hilberry Gallery opened in December 1976 and for almost 25 years had been an essential stop for metro-Detroit art addicts. Hilberry introduced our growing scene to the work of such international figures as Elizabeth Murray, Ron Gorchov, Linda Benglis and Judy Pfaff, and promoted such Detroit originals as Gordon Newton and Cay Bahnmiller. But Birmingham eventually got a little too predictable for Hilberry’s tastes.

“I’ve said that I’d wanted to leave for years, maybe even a decade. I wanted to move down near the DIA. I thought that maybe George [N’Namdi, another key Birmingham art dealer] and I could find something together.

“But all the spaces proved to be too big and too much money, and I didn’t want to be a landlord with tenants in a 13,000-square-foot building, which is what I was turning up.

“Quite a few good galleries (Revolution and Lemberg among them) had moved to Ferndale, and so I started looking there, which seemed more doable in terms of price, but then I was looking on Woodward Avenue forever. I hated the traffic. I hated the way the street looked. The buildings were too much money.”

We take a jaw-dropping tour of the square, symmetrical structure that was built in 1955 as the home of the Peterson Window Company. Now, after a thorough rethinking and makeover by Birmingham architect Tamas von Staden, it basks in the afternoon rays like some temple to minimalism. Hilberry and I sit on milk crates on the dusty concrete floor near a bank of high, glass-paneled doors. White plaster walls extend everywhere around us and the sunshine pouring through a skylight that runs down the center of the roof from front to back is breathtaking.

Hilberry looks into the heart of this brightness and says, “I think it’s about 4,500 square feet. It looks big to me all of a sudden. It looks huge.”

There’s no denying that the space is beginning to resonate with possibilities that may have only existed at the daydream stage a year ago. Now the question becomes how to animate this vastness. How will Hilberry ground her imagination in the material reality of this wide-open plan? With a lifetime of looking at and thinking about art behind her, she seems rather to be thriving on the challenge.

“I learned a lot from Sam Wagstaff. I worked for him circa 1970 in the DIA’s modern art department. He was this impossible visual visionary — at least I thought so. And meeting painters Ellen Phelan and Nancy Mitchnick when I was working at the museum (where they were both work-study students) — that dialogue between the modern art department and Sam and those two remarkable women and the Willis Gallery gave me a way of looking at things with seriousness. In a dialogue with vision, the conversations that real artists have with other living artists and those who are no longer living but leave their living legacy, absolutely changed my life.”

We walk through the glass back doors to stand on a wide concrete-slab patio, and the surplus of the site’s amenities starts to become apparent. With a little landscaping and redesign, the large yard could become a beautiful sculpture garden-outdoor reception area.

“One of the real weaknesses of my exhibition schedule has been how little sculpture’s been shown by me. We’ve certainly shown Tony Smith, Joel Shapiro and Keith Sonnier, but as a program, sculpture’s really difficult because it occupies the space that we do, the size and the transportation and all the obvious issues. I hope we can do more of it … and here we do have a garden where it can be nicely sited and people can have a chance to see it outdoors.”

Outside the building to both the north and south are asphalt parking lots that, once resurfaced, would be the envy of any gallery in town. Who wouldn’t mind hopping on over to an opening night here, with convenient parking, relaxing green surroundings and what feels like an endless supply of perfect white walls?

“What I hope will happen in the new space,” says Hilberry, “is that we’ll show a majority of artists whose work you’ve admired for many years and now they’re mature and have their own vision — and really show that the work is not easily pigeonholed. I just hate it that an artist who’s 50 and famous, everybody thinks they know what the work should look like and are talking about ‘representative’ and ‘archetypal.’

“What I’d like to do with some of the people who’ve been part of this stable, if that’s the right word, is to try to show a range of their work, not only the recent things, but maybe go back and show some of the older pieces in context, with some excursions and directions that they’ve taken over many years, but we just haven’t seen that because that hasn’t been the ‘representative’ work. That would give people an idea of how complex it is to be an artist and how many ideas you have and of the things that you have to set aside because you’re investigating one facet. But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t all these other things that you’ve touched that you can’t wait to get back to — some part of your work that you know if you’d gone down that path, something else would’ve happened …

“And then I hope that there’s a whole bunch of young people whose work hasn’t been shown here and I hope I can show them. I don’t have any program except showing work that I believe in … and now I’ve got a lot of room to do it in (laughs).”

Since von Staden is one of those roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-involved architects who’ll pick up a shovel or two-by-four when necessary, it’s easy to corner him and get his take on the whole concept: “The most interesting thing for me in this project was to try and not have a gallery that felt like a skin that was inserted into an existing building. All the walls are built of concrete block, so that we always felt we had something solid to work from, as opposed to lining it with other materials. To me it feels pure in the way an architectural model feels pure. We didn’t have to add things which took away from that purity.”

And since Hilberry’s inclination is to have absolute confidence in her architect, the everyday atmosphere on the job is more like a totally flexible collaboration between artists than a designer-client one.

“Sam [Wagstaff] used to say that you get to know somebody’s work, and then it’s about belief and trust, though it may go through ups and downs. I think I got that from my father and whatever his confidence was, about what he knew or didn’t know, in the architects he worked with — Minoru Yamasaki and Bill Kessler. And I love that in working with artists — they know and I don’t, and I’m just excited and delighted when you see what kind of conclusion or solution they come to.”

So Hilberry finds herself on a stretch of Livernois between Eight Mile Road and Marshall with an intriguing mix of commercial-warehouse structures and one-family homes. It’s another of those Motor City pockets where artists and other professionals have set up studios and ateliers, and the line between urban and suburban realities is fairly well blurred.

“I think a gallery could be anywhere you feel comfortable and want it to be. I like this street. Anybody who comes here would see why. You don’t feel isolated and yet it feels quiet. There’s this lovely combination of residential and quiet, and yet a connection to traffic. It isn’t plagued with all that American vernacular signage — which I guess can be energizing and exciting in some situations, but I like it not being here. It’s this streetscape of modest ’60s architecture — in some way there’s a kind of aesthetic here. I guess it would be nice if there was a wine bar and a bakery and a bookshop — that could be cool, if there was a little more street life. But on the other hand, I just don’t feel that I’m very far from anything. I find it very serene or calming. It’s totally flat. The houses around here, some are more interesting than others, but there’s nothing too spectacular. It’s not a rolling, exciting, dramatic landscape — there’s just something about it that is so pleasant, so that you can be inside yourself or read your book or look at something.

“I just feel like I’m here and this is where I live — and I don’t know what else to do. It’s how I’m alive.”

The Susanne Hilberry Gallery, 700 Livernois, Ferndale, will reopen in mid-September.

George Tysh is arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail gtysh@metrotimes.com

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