Framing an audience

On a warm Thursday evening in early August, a smartly yet casually dressed party of 40 sips wine and nibbles on hors d’oeuvres at Revolution gallery in Ferndale. However, this isn’t the usual gathering of jaded culturati dressed in black. It’s an “art happening” put on by Emerge, a company that’s trying to bring a whole new clientele into Detroit’s art scene. Besides being newbie contemporary art fans, the group partying at Revolution is notable because they were mostly couples in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

Emerge is the brainchild of thirtysomethings Melissa Shulman and Nicole Wagner of Birmingham. “Art happenings” are their way of easing people into the contemporary art scene, making people more comfortable about art so they may even buy it. So far, the happenings are like casually cool cocktail parties. (Besides the Revolution event, Emerge hosted a private party a couple of months back at the Hamtramck loft of a major contemporary-art collector). But in the future they could take the form of lectures, gallery crawls or whatever else gets people interested in art.

“There are a lot of people in Detroit with the wherewithal to buy art, but who don’t know how to go about it,” Shulman says. “We came up with this idea to have art happenings to get people involved.”

Emerge isn’t entirely altruistic; it’s a consulting business. Art consultants advise clients on art purchases and broker deals between buyers and sellers. Some consultants take a cut of the transaction price (usually 10 percent to 15 percent) while others charge an hourly rate or work on retainer. They usually don’t maintain an inventory, like a dealer does, or run a gallery space. Consultants are hired by collectors, interior designers and corporations — and pretty much anybody else who’s in the market for art. Shulman and Wagner have been working together for about a year.

“We’re building a list of clients,” Shulman says. They say their contact roster currently has about 150 names.

The two women first became aware of each other when they worked on a fund-raiser together. According to Wagner, a mutual friend mentioned to her that Shulman had an art history degree. “Then I saw her one day at the coney island with her family,” Wagner says. “I started talking to her about always wanting to do art consulting, and we just clicked.”

Shulman grew up outside of New York City and had worked for a Manhattan art dealer. She has a bachelor’s degree in art history with a minor in studio art. She moved to Detroit in 1993 while her husband was still in law school.

“There were no art jobs in Detroit at the time, so I got into marketing, which I never really liked,” she says. “Then I became a docent at the DIA and decided I wanted to make a business of it.”

Wagner is originally from Detroit but lived in Chicago for eight years before moving back to the area two years ago. She worked as a graphic designer during her time in the Windy City where she was also active with the Museum of Contemporary Art.

“When I came back, I didn’t want to do graphic design anymore; I wanted to do something I was passionate about,” says Wagner.

The two also share a connection through the Detroit Institute of Arts, where both are on the board of the Junior Council, which is geared to younger people but not necessarily focused on contemporary art. The pair sensed a need for something that would speak directly to their peers about what’s happening now in the larger art world rather than just what’s at the museum.

“There are no young people at the Friends of Modern Art and graphic arts group meetings,” Shulman says of the DIA groups that support modern and contemporary art. “Our age group is just this dead air that’s out there and it needs to be jump-started.”

That a new approach is needed for developing Detroit’s contemporary art audience has long been a topic among older patrons, who for years have lamented the seeming lack of interest in collecting among younger people. Museums such as the Guggenheim in Manhattan have established young collectors’ councils to promote an interest in contemporary art at the entry level. The DIA has tried to do something similar with the Forum for Contemporary Art, but it hasn’t attracted as much new blood as many had hoped.

Perhaps part of the problem has been the association of these efforts with old-school ways, particularly the view that art should be about “connoisseurship” and other serious stuff. Shulman and Wagner seem to bring a much lighter touch.

Ruth Rattner, a prominent Birmingham-based consultant who’s on the Friends of Modern Art board as well as the museum’s Collections Committee, says, “This is a new generation and it may be time for a new way of going about things. If they can get younger people to buy art, that’s great.”

Of the pair’s method, Paul Kotula, director of Revolution, says, “They don’t claim to be the end-all of contemporary art. They’re just who they are and they don’t lead people on.”

Yet Kotula believes Shulman and Wagner are sincerely interested in supporting contemporary art, especially the work of younger Detroiters. “They just didn’t throw a party,” he says. “They talked to us about what they were trying to do; they did their research. I gave them catalogs [about the gallery’s artists] and they read them. They followed through on picking up work and getting it to clients.”

For the event, Kotula brought out art that he usually doesn’t show at Revolution but always has for sale: small-scale drawings, prints and photos in the approximate price range of $200 to $500.

As a result, a couple of pieces from Revolution were placed into private collections, Kotula confirms. So Emerge does appear to be getting the job done. “A lot of things have been tried and haven’t worked,” Kotula observes. “So when something new comes along you just have to embrace it.”

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