Eight is enough

After eight amazing years working to bring Detroit artists into the light, the Maniscalco Gallery will be closing its doors for good on Friday, May 20. That’s the day we’re going to have a great big party, “The Last Hurrah,” celebrating the many memories we’ve shared with our friends and supporters. With our second child arriving in July, my wife, Amanda, and I are dividing our time between Detroit and Charleston, S.C.

Although the brick and mortar aspect of what we are doing will come to an end, we will continue to contribute to a vibrant art scene in Detroit. My role as host of the Detroit public television program Art Beat is contingent upon whether we receive the necessary funding for a third season.

Naturally, I have mixed feelings about closing the Maniscalco Gallery. I’d like to think we’ve made an important contribution to the cultural life of our community. We have been privileged to enjoy the appreciation and support of a number of amazing individuals over the years. Along the way I’ve learned some valuable lessons about what goes into running a serious, viable art gallery in today’s economy. Unfortunately, Maniscalco Gallery didn’t stand a chance for more than eight glorious years.

Despite the old guard’s monastic retreat from the marketplace, Detroit continues to be an excellent place to make art. Sadly, however, there remain only a few sustainable gallery models in Detroit’s serious art scene. The first functions primarily as a tax shelter for the wealthy, who can afford to flaunt their impeccable taste for fine art in the faces of the unwashed masses. The other is the academic galleries, whose interdependence with tenured professors and artists effectively insulates them from the market. Both models operate comfortably above the fray, where they can afford to turn their noses up at the next generation of collectors.

Another model, which isn’t working well, is that of the grassroots renegades, who pry their way through any crack in the pavement, occupying unwanted places in the city, hoping for any bone to be thrown their way. These artist-run alternative spaces have no operating capital and their overhead is so low they exist in relative obscurity, well below the radar. The valiant mavericks come and go with Zen-like optimism, setting up shop and, unfortunately, often folding.

With all this professional dysfunction, it’s no wonder people have turned their backs on Detroit art. Aside from the obvious effect of our current economic woes, many blame this sorry state on the carburetor mentality, which cavalierly presumes Detroiters are too blue-collar to appreciate serious art. I just don’t buy that anymore. I’m convinced there is an art market here, people who want to buy original art where they live and know artists and celebrate them. We are a major cultural center, with nationally recognized universities and cultural institutions within an inspiring striking distance. We can’t blame the many talented artists thanklessly producing innovative work. No, the fault rests squarely on our failed gallery system.

Detroit would benefit from a vibrant Art Dealers Association, affiliated with the National Art Dealers Association. Facilitating the creation of an effective Detroit branch would be an excellent project for our art service agencies, Detroit Cultural Affairs or Michigan Association of Community Arts Agencies, whose role is to generate synergies within the arts community. A local association could be a powerful force in this region, building coordination for exhibitions, advertising, media relations, effective, ethical and consistent business practices, setting standards high and pooling limited resources. Imagine picking up a Detroit gallery guide at the airport. It could put a face on the city, establishing it as a major arts destination.

Cities such as Milwaukee, Denver, Dallas and Charleston with half our talent have 10 times the art market because their galleries have responded to the demands of the communities they serve. Meanwhile, here in Detroit, actual art commerce is taking place in the Thomas Kinkade outlets and factory-produced knockoff and print galleries peppering the sprawling suburban strip malls with insipid decorator images and dubious limited editions. Sadly, Detroit artists are being marginalized; the passion, vitality and relevance of our best work is lost because our gallery system has failed to reach out. There must be a middle ground. And the delivery of art to the market must be based on its relevance to the market.

I’m certain when Detroit artists finally begin to value their product — and yes, art is a product — and call for the creation of an effective local organization, you can bet the people of Southeast Michigan will wake up to the joy of collecting art.


“The Last Hurrah” runs 6-9 p.m., Friday, May 20, at Maniscalco Gallery, 17728 Mack Ave., Grosse Pointe; 313-886-2993.

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