According to a new Urban Institute report, Detroit is a cultural shithole, ranking at or near the bottom of 60 large American cities as measured by the number of local arts organizations and other supposedly objective criteria. Laura Berman of The Detroit News devoted an entire column to the report without recognizing that one explanation why perceptions of Motown's aesthetic landscape are so negative is the scant coverage of the local art scene by the city's dailies.
Having lived for several years recently in New York City and seen a lot of pretty lame art there, I can say that the Detroit art scene has a lot more going for it than naysayers would have you believe. In fact, there's more high-quality art activity in Detroit now than there's been in a long time.
The exhibition Chamber of Commerce: Pat Glascock and Michael Hall: Artists and Collectors at Oakland University Art Gallery is a case in point. The show, which closed on Dec. 17, surveyed the work of two prominent area artists alongside objects they've collected over their years of living and working together. Mixed in with Glascock's watercolors and collages and Hall's wall-mounted and freestanding sculptures were examples of the folk art and Great Lakes regional painting that they're internationally recognized as being experts on. Plus there was a choice selection of novelty salt-and-pepper shakers, handmade sock monkeys, souvenir totems, vintage tiki heads, kachina dolls and other American pop culture artifacts.
Co-curated by the redoubtable Dick Goody (who did his usual bang-up job on the catalog), Chamber of Commerce was a sublime cultural mash-up that offered a glimpse into the way artists and their works are influenced by the world around them. Arguably more important, by eschewing conventional museum installation (which categorizes objects according to style, nationality, date, media, etc.) the show provided a model for breaking down the walls between fine art and craft, high and low culture, and other distinctions of taste that separate so-called snobbish elites from presumably hapless philistines. Art dealers, collectors, curators and artists from as far away as New York, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, not to mention members of the Michigan Salt-and-Pepper Shaker Club, thought the show worthy of attention even though it wasn't covered by any local media save the Detroitarts blog.
Blogger Ann Gordon's entry for "Chamber of Commerce" (dated Nov. 19) wasn't one of her finer moments, however. She apparently didn't know who Glascock and Hall were yet burbled on blithely nonetheless. The comment about some work looking like "art you would find at a garage sale" was especially inane. What would Gordon have said in 1917 about Duchamp's "Fountain" or in 1963 about Warhol's "Brillo Box" sculptures? What about Mike Kelley today?
So here's a suggested New Year's resolution for anyone who wants to write about art and culture in Detroit: Bone up on the subject matter. Ignorance is the main reason Detroit has a rep it simply doesn't deserve.Vince Carducci writes about art and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]