Detroit = Downtown

Sep 22, 2004 at 12:00 am

For about as long as modern art has existed in America there’s been a distinction between “uptown” and “downtown” art scenes. In New York, “uptown” historically meant the blue-chip galleries, auction houses and major museums of midtown Manhattan and the Upper East Side, places where art with an established pedigree was displayed. “Downtown” meant upstart galleries, artists’ cooperatives and other experimental spaces that through the years moved from Greenwich Village to SoHo to the East Village and to the Lower East Side, usually a step ahead of escalating real estate values. Uptown is the domain of collectors; downtown is the realm of artists (with escalating real estate in the city, artists have been forced to move to places like Long Island City and Astoria in Queens and Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn).

A similar uptown/downtown divide holds for the Motor City. Uptown in Detroit means the northern suburbs. Downtown is pretty much anything south of Eight Mile Road. As with the Big Apple, uptown is where collectors commonly reside and downtown is where the artists live and work and maintain studios. The analogy isn’t quite exact — for one thing, the Detroit Institute of Arts is downtown, constituting what art critic Robert Pincus-Witten once termed wistfully an “island in the blight.” In recent years, Ferndale, on the northern edge of Detroit, has emerged as a kind of free trade zone where uptown and downtown geographically and culturally come together. But for the most part the distinction works.

And while the big money is by and large made uptown, there’s plenty of action downtown. In fact, a Metro Times tally of galleries reveals that there are more art venues within Detroit city limits than exist in the rest of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties combined. As befits the downtown model, many of the Detroit operations are co-ops like ACT and Zeitgeist or avant-garde operations like Tangent and 4371 (for specifics on these galleries, check the gallery listing that follows).

But there’s also more than a fair share of traditional galleries run by impresarios like George N’Namdi and Sherry Washington.

And the spaces themselves can be as nice as any uptown venue — C-Pop and Detroit Artists Market are as beautiful as they come. Their shows can be uneven quality-wise, but there’s generally a sense of immediacy to the work because it’s often fresh from a studio nearby.

Detroit’s abiding status as the center for art in the metro area isn’t hurt by the fact that two of the three major art schools — CCS and Wayne State University (the third being Cranbrook) — are downtown. Also important is the availability of relatively affordable studio space in places like the Atlas Building near Eastern Market, the Brooklyn Building by the old Tiger Stadium and the Russell Industrial Center.

And so it’s fitting that downtown is where art in the spirit of Detroit is to be found. For the legion of artists influenced by the legacy of the Cass Corridor, downtown is both muse and material. Stephen Magsig doesn’t paint the unoccupied buildings of Birmingham nor does multi-media artist Scott Hocking spend much time rummaging around Sterling Heights looking for interesting recyclables to incorporate into his art. It’s Detroit that occupies these and innumerable other artists.

Many artists show downtown before moving uptown. Dennis Jones showed at Cass Cafe, Tangent and 4371 before showing at Robert Kidd in Birmingham. Clint Snider showed at Tangent before moving to Susanne Hilberry in Ferndale. Artists like Janet Hamrick showed for years at downtown spaces like the Artists Market (where she was also a gallery assistant) before getting a shot in the show at uptown places like Lemberg Gallery.

For the average person who wants to be part of the Detroit art scene, downtown has a lot to offer. For one thing, the art’s prices are typically lower, often in the hundreds of dollars versus the thousands and higher. (You can spend a lot downtown if you want — check out the price list at N’Namdi or Sherry Washington. Don’t let prices scare you off — gallery owners, uptown and down, want people to come into their galleries to see the work, much like you would in a museum, regardless of whether the work sells.) Part of the reason for the lower prices downtown is that artists are often at an earlier stage in their careers when they’re showing downtown.

The social network downtown provides lots of opportunities to get involved, from volunteering to just hanging around. What’s more, the openings are often more fun because they’re essentially parties the artists and their friends throw for one another — the old Michigan Gallery openings are legendary in this regard.

If you want a taste of art Motown style, give downtown a try.

Vince Carducci writes about arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]