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Teaching the terrain 

Midtown Detroit, lately, is a surprisingly bustling landscape. With hip, new

modernist lofts overlooking Woodward Avenue, a new museum of contemporary art and a Starbucks, people glide in and out of buildings and cruise the streets on a Saturday afternoon.

And all that action is just a few blocks up from even more activity, where a new cultural institution adds to the mix: Occupying Orchestra Place's corner space, which used to be Duet restaurant, the Detroit Center is an off-site University of Michigan facility that intends to use the city as a tool for teaching and research.

Most exciting, however, is the addition of Work: Detroit, an art gallery in the foyer sponsored by U-M's School of Art and Design. "Through exhibitions and related programming," director Nick Sousanis writes in his mission statement, "Work: Detroit will serve as an intersection for people and creative work from Detroit to Ann Arbor and beyond. It is in this fertile terrain that ideas collide and new perspectives emerge."

Sousanis has sagely chosen the gallery's literal location as the subject of his inaugural exhibition. In Intersection, artists from Detroit and faculty from U-M's School of Art and Design respond to the gallery's site at the corner of Woodward Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The show features work by Alana Bartol, Lowell Boileau, Jim Cogswell, Miroslav Cukovic, Pat Duff, Tirtza Even, Ted Ramsay and several others. Sousanis calls the enthusiasm for the project overwhelming. Gary Schwartz has composed an animation that explores the midtown area through the eyes of Judge Augustus Woodward, the designer of Detroit's original street plan. Installation artist Scott Hocking is working through a concept related to Native American mounds, which once existed in the immediate area. He will likely either build something similar to the mounds, or document his research with a lecture.

U-M professor Nick Tobier built a bus stop with Detroit artist Rachel Timlin. It's an intimate two-seater, a bench on wheels outfitted with a radio and a container filled with drinking water, an improved version of the typical "stick with a sign." Tobier, who stood occasionally as "an attendant" at the stop outside Orchestra Place, says he thought it would be "a great way to get close to the culture of the corner." Sculptor John Sauvé installed a new piece outdoors, behind Orchestra Place, in the Nevelson courtyard, drawing attention to an existing Louise Nevelson sculpture that's hidden by a building. Jack Johnson (pictured above, at right, with Sousanis) has a new piece composed of derelict debris found in the area. And Deb King presents online a visual history of Detroit, since its founding in 1701.

The key element here, is seeing art and culture in the context of the region, and finding a productive, cross-pollinating dynamic. Work: Detroit could emerge as a significant contribution to the urban conversation and an addition to a much-needed gallery district in the heart of the city.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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October 28, 2020

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