Critical survey

Jun 21, 2006 at 12:00 am

Covering the metro Detroit art beat for six decades has been a great ride. It has kept me young at heart, close to the people I admire most and well supplied with flashbacks.

I'll never forget how Sam Wagstaff, the curator of modern art at the Detroit Institute of Arts during the 1960s, invited earthwork-meister Mike Heizer to drag a two-ton boulder across the museum's north lawn. The piece was exciting to watch and it turned me into a Heizer fan. But furious trustees couldn't wait to fix the busted sidewalks and mutilated grass. Manicured lawns won over art.

There was the time artist Stephen Goodfellow rallied disgruntled artists, who complained the DIA was ignoring them, and showed them how to get their images on the museum's walls. They waited until dark, loaded their slides and projected them outdoors on the John R facade.

Or, there was the summer Aaron Timlin walked to New York wearing a cardboard carton with "Got Art?" inscribed on the sides. His reason: To raise money for his Detroit Contemporary gallery. He didn't get much cash but he did come home with a case of poison ivy.

Watching Tyree Guyton create the "Heidelberg Project" over the past 20 years, infusing objects others discarded with his brand of magic, has been a rich source of stories.

Also, I have greatly enjoyed discovering "underground" art at the CPOP Gallery with the likes of Glenn Barr, Camilo Pardo and the wonderful Niagara, whose tough-talking persona hides a very soft heart. (OK, so I'm ruining her image.)

I came to The Detroit News in 1946, fresh out of the Wayne State University art department with a degree in painting. I got the art critic's job a year later. I had learned enough to know I'd never be a painter. At the same time, I had acquired a profound respect for those blessed with creativity and the drive to make it visible.

Art never was a full-time beat at The News. In the beginning I also was beauty editor, writing about hairstyles and perfume under the byline Lucy Carroll. When I'd go to New York on dual assignments, I'd register at a hotel under two names — my own and Lucy's. I'd dream up stunts to make my other life interesting, like a silent wig interview with Harpo Marx and dyeing a model's hair green on St. Patrick's Day in order to parade her around town for reactions.

Though I had some fun on the beauty beat, my true love was art. I've watched the art community go through various phases, some exciting and others forgettable. Compared to what's gone before, this is an interesting period caught in a difficult balancing act. On one hand, artists are pouring energy into digital works, photo-based projects and innovative installations, as well as finding fresh approaches to so-called "realism." On the other hand, a difficult economy is drying up funds for cultural organizations and driving away art buyers. But this too will change.

During the second half of the 1940s, Detroit, like the rest of the country, was healing from World War II. Art schools were training a new generation of artists, many of them veterans studying on the GI Bill. The old Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts School on Watson Street was active again, building the momentum that would turn it into the College for Creative Studies several decades down the road.

In 1956, I wrote the 50-year history of the arts and crafts movement in Detroit. My research for the book, Art and a City, revealed that Detroit society was one of the leading arts and crafts centers in the country at the turn-of-the 20th century and that it laid the foundation for the art community that exists here today. The institutions that grew from it include Pewabic Pottery, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Cranbrook Art Museum and the Detroit Artists Market. Arts and crafts leaders also were major "angels" for the DIA. They included Cranbrook founder George Gough Booth and Robert Hudson Tannahill, who bequeathed his important collection to the Detroit museum.

The late 1960s and 1970s also made art history in Detroit. Two major groups working and exhibiting separately pumped energy into the community — the Cass Corridor artists and the Gallery 7 artists led by Charles McGee.

The Cass Corridor gang consisted mostly of male professors and art students at Wayne State. They made art along a seedy stretch of Cass Avenue, they drank at Cobb's Corner at Cass and Willis, and they exhibited at the Willis Gallery down the block. The Willis was a run-down storefront. But I can remember walking through with Philip Guston, who admired the proportions of the space enough to say he wouldn't mind showing his own work there.

The DIA's Sam Wagstaff inspired and encouraged Cass Corridor artists, such as Gordon Newton, Michael Luchs, Douglas James and Jim Chatelain. Susanne Hilberry, who owns a leading gallery today, worked at the museum with Wagstaff in those days and was an important part of the Cass Corridor energy.

The Cass Corridor guys ignored industrial Detroit as a subject. Instead, they forged a gritty form of expressionism out of the bits and pieces of a decaying inner city. Ironically, the two women in the group — Ellen Phelan and Nancy Mitchnick — were the only members of the original gang to survive in New York and gain national attention.

When the Detroit Artists Market invited Charles McGee to curate an exhibit in 1969, he came up with 7 Black Artists. After the successful show came down, he opened Gallery 7 on West McNichols to showcase African-American artists. McGee has been a powerhouse in the local art community as a teacher, exhibitor and role model. The DIA honored him with a one-man exhibit on his 70th birthday, 11 years ago. Among his many commissions are murals he did for the DIA, the Detroit People Mover and Beaumont Hospital.

McGee took Gallery 7 to the Fisher Building, where the Detroit art scene was centered in the 1970s. Even the Willis Gallery moved there for a time, but soon folded. Commercial galleries such as the Kasle and the Feigenson showed both national and Michigan artists, a mix that was healthy for the local art community.

In fact, Detroit has been blessed with good galleries through the years. Without them we never would have seen much of what was happening around the country. We've had survivors who followed the lead of the late Donald Morris and his family, who brought in top-flight exhibits for some 40 years, beginning in 1958. Other galleries still contributing to the community after several decades are the Susanne Hilberry, the Robert Kidd (directed by Ray Fleming), the Lemberg and the G.R. N'Namdi.

By specializing in African-American art and encouraging black collectors to invest in their heritage, George N'Namdi has been influential in creating a strong market nationally. Watching the African-American field grow and the history of neglected artists be revealed has been a highlight of my years of writing about art. The DIA's Graham W. J. Beal was the first art museum director in the country to devote a department to African-American art and to head it with an outstanding curator like Valerie Mercer.

Beal is the fifth director to head the city-owned DIA since I began writing about art for The News. The first was Edgar P. Richardson, whose passionate support helped Americans respect and love our own art. It had been the way of the art world to discount just about everything by Americans in favor of a European aesthetic. But Richardson's books, exhibits and collecting for the DIA proved what a rich heritage Americans have.

Richardson's successor, Willis F. Woods, opened the DIA's doors to African art at a time when the black community was demanding that their heritage be acknowledged too. The legendary Dr. Charles H. Wright, founder of the Museum of African American History, joined a protest march in front of the museum to make the point. It was on Woods' watch that the Friends of African Art support group was formed to raise money for purchases. Former Michigan Gov. G. Mennen ("Soapy") Williams gave the museum a collection of African artifacts he had acquired while he was a U.S. ambassador in Africa. Frederick J. Cummings, who became director after Woods left, brought in Michael Kan to build an African collection now ranked as one of the country's finest.

Although he had impeccable scholarly credentials, Cummings was a big spender. So big, in fact, that Mayor Coleman A. Young suspected wrong-doing in the early 1980s and sent in armed guards to carry off the DIA's books for examination at City Hall. I happened to be in the museum that day, watching it all go down. It turned out that the director had splurged by jetting to Europe on the Concorde, running up excessive hotel and restaurant bills and buying art from cronies at inflated prices. He was eased out of the city-owned museum and headed for New York as a private art dealer with a suite in Trump Tower.

Sam Sachs II followed Cummings to the director's chair in 1985, the year the DIA turned 100. His greatest contribution during the 1990s was in changing the DIA governance from the city to the Founders Society, which had been providing most of the funding for years.

After he left Detroit to become director of the Frick Collection, Sachs confessed something that intrigued me when I interviewed him in New York. He had only been in Detroit a short time when Mayor Young demanded that he join other department heads in patroling the city streets to catch arsonists on Devil's Night. The new director complied but was so outraged that he was tempted to leave his new post before he got started.

That wasn't the first time museum directors and curators walked a tight rope between demanding city officials and angry local artists. The worst case was how Jan van der Marck lost his job and the community lost a first-rate curator of modern art. He was accused of breaking the city's residency rule by living in Oakland County even though he kept an apartment in Detroit, received his mail there and voted there.

Sachs, for his part, landed in deep trouble with local artists when he offered a non-juried show open to everyone who limited the size of their work to 12 inches or less. He called it a "foot-in-the-door" exhibit and couldn't understand why he was roundly booed by more than 100 artists, who had turned out for a meeting. He said this kind of show had been a success when he was director of the Minneapolis Museum.

For as long as I can remember, artists who live and work here have been critical of the encyclopedic DIA for not doing more with contemporary art. Jef Bourgeau, an innovative artist in his own right, has been struggling to get his Museum of New Art (MONA) off the ground for 10 years. However, it never attracted the financial lifeline it needs.

Now, there's hope that Detroit will join other major cities in having an independent museum devoted to the art of today. The recently formed Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) has a building on Woodward just south of the Cultural Center, an exhibit in the works (curated by New Yorker Klaus Kertess), an opening set for October and a dedicated group of supporters raising funds.

One regret is that I won't be writing about the progress of MOCAD because I'm moving to St. Louis. Earlier this year, I had been considering retirement. My husband and I wanted to move to St. Louis to be closer to our family. When The News offered a buyout, I decided to take it — on the day of the deadline.

I left The News in April, but the art beat left me months, even years ago. It strikes me as particularly ironic that The News should join other metropolitan dailies across the country in drastically cutting coverage of the visual arts. When I first came to the paper — and during most of my career there — it was owned by the Booth/Scripps family, the major art patrons who founded and owned Cranbrook. Not being able to review exhibits for The News or even get the space to cover the art news adequately has been a pain for me because it ignores the values I consider vital to a civilized society. Even sadder is that nobody else is likely to get the chance to take the same great ride I had on a metropolitan daily newspaper in Detroit.

Joy Hakanson Colby is a freelance writer moving to St. Louis. Send comments to [email protected]