Standing in his sprawling Hamtramck home and workspace, artist Graem Whyte, 38, is thoughtfully thumbing through a worn blue volume of tiny handwritten lettering. The book's notes tell the story of Whyte's brainchild, the This Week in Art series, a weekly event he has curated at Detroit's Motor City Brewing Works for the last four years. As he prepares to step away from the project, passing the reins to another local artist, he's mounting one last show there on Jan. 7.
To hear Whyte tell it, the series began not only as a way to expose people to art, but also as a way to make a little more cash. In fall of 2004, he'd tend bar at the brewery on Wednesday nights to normally sparse crowds.
"Four years ago, it was kind slow," he says. "They were really only open 4 p.m. to midnight every day before they had food. We were just looking for a way to get people to come in to make some money — so I could make more than just $40 in tips a night."
After trying a "bring-your-own garage sale" during the warmer months, Whyte dreamed up an event that could be taken inside as winter set in. His inspiration came from a weeklong annual art event called Five Shows in Five Days. For several years, artists Philip Burke and Roe Peterhans had put on that event at local venues. And Whyte had participated in the show and helped curate it in 2003.
"It was a one-week show with, like, two different artists each night, for five days straight," he says. "A lot of times, unfortunately, with art shows, people only go to the opening anyway, so the show was a way to keep that venue fresh in people's minds for that week."
Having learned from the experience, Whyte decided to expand it by putting on 52 shows in one year. "I needed something for the brewery, so I kind of applied that and just made it one show a week." Using three small panel walls, Whyte turned the back of the bar into a miniature art gallery, with small works and sometimes smaller price tags. From the beginning, the crowds started coming in, attracted by locally known names, the small-form, inexpensive artwork and the casual atmosphere of the brewpub. Whyte worked hard for his tips, and was soon earning $150 a night.
"Affordable art always brings the people out, especially when people know that they can walk in and buy something for between $10 and $40," he says. The first show, in December 2004, was Mike Segal. Whyte recalls, "It was a good turnout, because Mike Segal always has a good following, and he does 4-by-6-inch postcards that he draws and sells cheap — $10 or something like that."
The momentum continued to build, outstripping Whyte's expectations. "I organize, I don't necessarily curate," he says. "The only thing required was that somebody asks for a show, so you never knew what you're going to get." And Whyte's friends in Detroit's art community were soon pestering him for shows. "At first it was like, 'OK, can you do a show in a month?' And then later it was, 'Hey, do you want to do a show in six months?' After that it was, 'OK, I'm booked for a year-and-a-half out.'
The series created a space unique in Detroit. In a city where weekend art openings sometimes feature expensive works, boxed wine and polite conversation, This Week has been comparatively fast, cheap and out-of-control. The brewery provided house-brewed beer and, eventually, food, while the one-night gallery required only a modest investment, both financially and psychologically.
Instead of showing only paintings, the series has ranged far and wide, with spoken-word from boozy blowhard Dan DeMaggio, poetry from Metro Times proofreader Dennis Shea, and short films from Ben Hernandez and CCS instructor Mike Smith. Giles Rosbury's Halloween show featured actual freak-show oddities from his bizarre personal collection, and the Taormina brothers went so far as to build a giant cardboard diorama in the space. The weirdest event was an "art séance," in which two artists donned lab coats and channeled dead artists, doing improvised paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso and Monet.
Despite these unusual events, Whyte points out that the vast majority of the shows featured "art that hangs," adding, "We've had lots of artists for whom it's their first show ever. ... I would say the average brewery artist is somebody who's still emerging. Often it was CCS students or Wayne students, and so it gives them a venue to show their work." But one could also count on a heavy-hitter or two each month, with such artists as the late Matt Blake, Bob Sestok, Sharon Que, Gilda Snowden, Carl Oxley III and Gwen Joy.
In addition to bringing together art and fun, the shows also helped bring something out in its artists. With exhibition space limited to a few walls in the back of the small pub, the show was often an impetus for experimentation.
Whyte says, "A lot of people make art for the brewery specifically; it's an excuse to make small, sellable work, especially if someone is normally working large."
And working small and cheap has often meant selling through. "We don't take a commission, we get good business, and then some artists would sell out the entire show and make their rent."
What's more, This Week furnished a space for Detroit's art community to socialize. "It's as much about the interaction with the art community and the artists, as it is about the art," Whyte points out. "It's a brewery after all. There are drinks, so you go hang out, you see what's going on with your fellow artists. ... I would say that about 60 to 75 percent of the patrons are artists on that night. It's just a good forum for seeing what's going on. It's kind of a way to see what the pulse of the city is, as far as artwork."
So why step away from a good thing? When he was booked a year-and-a-half out, he decided he'd had enough. He stopped tending bar a few months ago, and was going to pull the plug at the four-year mark. Instead, he's handing the project over to local artist Christina Gibbs, focusing on his job as foundry technician at CCS, running his design and architecture business, and, of course, working on his hulking new home-studio in Hamtramck.
After mounting more than 200 shows, Whyte sounds modest about the whole affair. "Four years is a good run. It was easy to do while I was working there, but ... it's been a pretty cool experiment."
This Week in Art's four-year anniversary show takes place on the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 7, at Motor City Brewing Works, 470 W. Canfield St., (in rear of the parking lot at Canfield Street and Second Avenue), Detroit; 313-832-2700.Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]