Board games

More than 70 years ago, on a Sunday afternoon in Detroit, a small group of elegant women in hats, heels, starched dresses and pressed white gloves sat in the dining room of a gorgeous Indian Village home to talk about what they could do to support Detroit artists.

It was a time before the city had a viable commercial gallery scene, before local universities had galleries, before there were such nonprofit art organizations as Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, Paint Creek Center for the Arts and the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, and way before such bedroom-sized start-ups as 101Up and all the grassroots collectives in abandoned buildings. It was the Depression, a time when America was overtaken by a spirit of volunteerism and rich citizens had a strong sense that it was their social responsibility to preserve culture.

Eventually, Detroit Artists Market, “the city’s oldest continuously operating gallery,” became known as the place where uptown meets downtown, where the country club meets the Corridor, where, as critic Glen Mannisto remembers, “an artist like Charles McGee showed with some kid you never heard of before.” Spiffy collectors rubbed shoulders with scruffy artists and prominent gallery directors always made an appearance at an opening to see and be seen.

Skip ahead to this year. In March, an artist stood outside DAM’s current location in the Cultural Center, waving the public in to the gallery, beckoning passers-by to come check out the exhibition Manufacturers of Real Excellence. For M.O.R.E., curator Mitch Cope selected artwork that deals with marketing and publicity. As part of the show, he flew in Marc Horowitz and Jon Brumit from San Francisco. At the exhibit opening, dressed in a suit and tie, Brumit cruised the room shaking hands and collecting business cards, saying, “Hi, I’m Jon Brumit, an artist in the show. How are you today?” Horowitz paid for newspaper advertisements inviting strangers to have dinner with him at the gallery. Cope, also interested in promoting Detroit Artists Market, displayed photo albums with decades’ worth of news clippings from DAM exhibitions. One young man who had never visited DAM was shocked to recognize his parents’ friends in a picture. Cope says, “It was a direct connection to his and Detroit Artists Market’s past and a bridge to the future.”

The show’s opening suggested a great collaborative effort between an independent curator, a group of young artists, DAM’s gallery staff and its board. But a behind-the-scenes conflict had reached a breaking point: Executive Director Aaron Timlin had been recently fired.

When a staff of three people loses its leader, an organization can crumble quickly. And according to Cope, there weren’t any board members around to pick up the pieces. He says he was completely confused, and it was obvious that the staff was freaked out too. “Nobody ever explained to me why there was a rush to get [Timlin] out of there — nobody explained anything at all.”

That’s just the most recent example of what’s gone wrong at Detroit Artists Market, an organization that began with the loftiest and most inspired of intentions and somehow turned into a place where directors revolve through the door every couple years, staff members leave resentful, and board members resign embittered. It is perhaps a reflection of the larger picture in Detroit. For some reason, people are really touchy. When things get tough, they give up.

With its small staff, modest gallery space and annual budget in the $250,000 range, DAM is a midsize player in the city’s art scene; yet the group has had, at its best, an impact far greater than its bottom line. What happens in the next few weeks and months could determine whether the group regains its former prominence, coasts along or becomes entirely irrelevant at a time when Detroit art sure as hell needs a hub.

Out of the box

When he took the helm at Detroit Artists Market in March 2002, Aaron Timlin, then 31 years old, brought his reputation as a visionary and a maverick. The son of inimitable artist Hugh Timlin, Aaron was a guy who, for art’s sake, once walked 700 miles to New York in a box. As the founder and owner of Detroit Contemporary gallery, he created a hot spot in a desolate West Side neighborhood, hosting lively art shows and popular funk nights. At DAM, in conjunction with the exhibition committee, he coordinated shows like 24-7, during which the gallery stayed open round-the-clock for a week. He took cues from what works in other cities, producing hybrid fashion, art and music performances, getting young bodies into the gallery who otherwise never would have visited.

And while he was in charge, the organization went from the brink of dissolution to financial health. According to an accountant’s review in 2002, DAM had “a deficit in working capital which raises substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a growing concern.” By the time Timlin left, DAM had a surplus of approximately $45,000.

Still, Timlin admits that he had a rocky relationship with the board members, some of whom call him anti-authoritarian. And he turned a blind eye to some fairly obvious conflicts of interest: During his tenure as executive director, he chose to stay on as president of Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, another local art organization with a very similar mission, and he hired his sister Rachel for the job of director of events and educational programs.

The circumstances surrounding his termination from his position are messy. He claims that Board Chair Ryan Husaynu and Vice Chair Tracy Lark fired him even though some board members wanted to keep him on staff in another capacity, as a creative director. Husaynu says, “DAM did not then, nor does now, have a creative director position. Also, Mr. Timlin made clear in a letter to the DAM Board he would continue employment with DAM only as the executive director.”

Timlin says his major complaint is how he was fired — inappropriately, right as the M.O.R.E. exhibit was opening and grant deadlines were approaching. Former exhibition committee chair Doug Bulka agrees that, from early on, the situation was handled haphazardly. Bulka says he left the organization because he disagreed with Timlin’s style of leadership, yet he also points fingers at the board’s executive committee: “There’s a reason for performance evaluations. There should be some follow-through and nothing happened. None of that was presented to Aaron, and I thought that was unfair. I sit at these meetings and people are dancing around issues. When you are the chair, a lot of times you have to do stuff that is unpopular or uncomfortable, but if you are looking out for what’s best for the organization, that’s what you have to do.”

Imagine managing a nonprofit, living and breathing the daily struggle to keep the doors open with 32 board members (regular and honorary) who check in for a few hours at meetings once a month and expect you to abide by their rules. Timlin isn’t the only DAM director to depart under less than ideal circumstances or after a relatively short stay. At DAM, directors typically leave every three to five years. Honorary board member Jeffrey Abt, an art professor at Wayne State University, says, “Organizations are famous for making their next decision based on the last battle. These are oftentimes flukes, and it doesn’t serve the organization well to make important policy decisions based on what happened last time around. We can learn from our past experiences but that doesn’t necessarily have to guide [us] in great detail.”

Who’s the boss

Detroit Artists Market always seems to have suffered from an identity crisis. Founded by art patron Mildred Simpson and a core group of people with passion and power — Robert Hudson Tannahill, Mrs. Richard Hudson Webber [of the J.L. Hudson family], Mrs. Clarence Davock, Mrs. William H. Rea and Mrs. George Kamperman — the organization was for many years run by dedicated volunteers. But after 37 years, in the ’60s it became clear that a paid staff was necessary. From that point on, DAM had a succession of young, talented, capable people filling a position that requires a lot of time and energy without a lot of financial compensation.

Early directors (the exact titles and duties have been fluid) created excitement by connecting the gallery to emerging artists. Former Detroit Free Press art critic Marsha Miro recalls the way Steve Higgins and later, Doug Semivan, then a young Cranbrook graduate, pushed the board to leave behind more traditional shows of realist painting in favor of contemporary work by visionary Cass Corridor talents.

A Cass Corridor artist himself and an MFA graduate from Wayne State University, Higgins in the ’70s showed new work by several young artists who went on to be big players: Ken and Ann Mikolowski, James Chatelain, John Egner, Doug James, Gordon Newton, Tom Parish and John Piet. Semivan curated an exhibit by a young Renaissance-style sculptor, Sergio De Giusti — way before Sergio De Giusti’s art was everywhere. (The labor legacy monument that looms over Jefferson at Hart Plaza is a collaboration between De Giusti and David Barr.)

Semivan produced a more mixed schedule, showcasing established artist Zubel Kachadoorian and Cass Corridor and Cranbrook artists. The board had faith in these directors, in part because they were good politicians, convincing the board of the energy surrounding the Corridor’s artist-run Willis Gallery, which opened in 1968, letting the board know that the artists showing at Willis thought DAM was, in Semivan’s words, “the other side of the street completely.”

Willis epitomized the counterculture, so DAM revitalized itself. “The Willis Gallery gave the artist of Detroit a place to really smash against the wall,” Semivan says, “Willis was a lot more gritty, and there was more of a dress code at the Artists Market. But the board was hands-off because they liked what I was doing.” He didn’t have problems with the board, he adds with a note a humor, “because I was better behaved. You know, they thought, ‘He’s good-looking and plays tennis.’”

But directors who followed weren’t as lucky. Sharon Zimmerman was asked to leave her post in the ’80s. “Sometimes I think the people who have been the most successful have been the more mature individuals who have had years of well-rounded experience — political, social and educational — and they are better able to balance the different demands to work more successfully with the board,” Zimmerman says.

Heather Jones, a former DAM board chair, has a theory about why many directors seem to leave the organization so quickly: “After about three years, the organization ceases to be Detroit Artists Market, owned emotionally by the board, and becomes a private individual’s thing. When that happens, trouble arises.”

Gerry Craig served as art director from 1990 to 1995, a really popular time for the gallery during which it was known, according to critic Glen Mannisto, as “the only place in town where everyone was there and there was a feeling of camaraderie, of community.”

But on the inside, Craig says, “There was definitely confusion of the roles that the staff and the board play. That confusion takes up a lot of energy that could be spent in more productive ways. It’s disheartening to see growth potential for any organization stall out when there isn’t clarity about those relationships.”

Craig remembers the debate over changing her title from art director to executive director, even though she was already writing grants and doing other executive chores. Some on the board feared the executive position would sideline volunteers.

“It seems like the smaller the nonprofit, the more people micromanage,” says Abt, the professor and honorary board member. He sees an inverse relationship between the amount of money people give and the micromanaging they do.

“At the Detroit Institute of Arts, where the board of directors is expected to annually give significant amounts of money, they would never dream of questioning the director’s decision about small matters. They’d be very clear that their job is to advise the director on matters of policy. As you go down the level, what happens is they are not contributing that much money every year but the juice that they get out of it is that they really are going to micromanage. They are going to come into every board meeting, questioning this and that. Poor executive directors in jobs like that go crazy.”

But it is not just dysfunction that drives everyone nuts. Former board member Bulka also says that over the years he noticed that the board hired directors then failed to emotionally support them, and he uses the resignation of hard-working DAM Executive Director Maria Louisa Belmonte in the late ’90s as an example. Bulka remembers a brainstorming retreat at a board member’s house. He arrived expecting Belmonte would be there, and instead “here’s her letter of resignation on the table. She wasn’t invited to the retreat because they wanted to be able to talk freely.” Bulka says Belmonte was constantly undermined by then-Board Chair Abt, who admits now that he may have contributed to her leaving.

“I always thought it worked well when a board governs and the staff manages, but it’s slippery on how that plays out,” Craig says. “It should be the board’s goal to be an outstanding employer, to be the very best, most desirable employer that you can be. That would be tremendous. It would shift the focus.”

Old money, new money

When the Artists Market opened, an organization could operate on a lot less money, and it wasn’t essential for a director to be a fundraiser. That’s another way times have changed, and it puts a lot of pressure on one person to be the creative thinker, working with a committee coming up with great exhibitions and to go out to lunch with donors and bring home a check. It’s been very hard the past decade or so for a nonprofit to attract big givers. Abt says, “There’s a class difference. The old wealth believed with wealth came the responsibility, which was committed to institutions. That’s going away, and it’s not being replaced. The people who have money now are the younger entrepreneurs and the corporate nomads who are going to be here for two years, then in Stuttgart, then in Buenos Aires.”

And when it comes down to it, Abt says some people disappear under the bushes when the hard work comes. He says he can’t understand the contentious attitude in this city — why so many people choose to disassociate themselves to prove a point.

Abt counts Jean Hudson, wife of Joseph Hudson Jr., as a philanthropist in Detroit who has been a great source of wisdom and support for DAM through the years. “There were a number of problems and she didn’t walk away, she stuck with us and talked about those problems. And today, she was certainly around when there were problems with Aaron. There, too, she made observations. But again, she didn’t pull out in terms of her actual presence and she didn’t pull out in terms of her financial support. Would that there were more Jean Hudsons in this town. Because that’s what you need.”

Philanthropy at organizations large and small works with “giving circles,” and every board must have at least one person who can make them work. When an event comes up, that person gives, say, $3,000 and convinces friends to write checks, so the $3,000 gift becomes a $30,000 gift. The problem in this city is that there are relatively few people who give that kind of money to cultural institutions, and there are much more prestigious institutions around than Detroit Artists Market to give to.

It is somewhat atypical that an organization like DAM requires no annual dues from its board members — executive, honorary or otherwise. Board members claim it is set up this way so they can be more diverse and inclusive in nominating members, including artists and professors, who have a lot to offer in terms of ideas but not financial support. But at Friends of Modern Art (a group that supports the DIA’s modern art department), only a few posts are reserved for those who can’t otherwise bring in the money.

And at most organizations, honorary boards exist so that former members can remove themselves to make room for fresh faces, yet remain affiliated for occasional advice and financial support. At DAM, they may not be able to vote, but honorary board members are invited to participate at every regular board meeting and are under no pressure to contribute financially.

Meanwhile, DAM struggles, like every other nonprofit art organization in the nation, because of cutbacks in state and corporate funding, making it even more difficult for a director to balance the budget.

Debbie Mikula, executive director of the Michigan Association of Community Arts Agencies, says the arts budget was cut from $24 million to $11 million when Jennifer Granholm took office, with further cuts proposed.

Sam Singh, president and CEO Michigan Nonprofit Association, adds, “There’s a decline in corporate contributions because their bottom line is also bad, and foundations have cut back because they haven’t seen good return in the stock markets, so essentially nonprofits are getting hit three times.”

The hard sell

Selling art, like art itself, has changed since 1932, when the organization decided to focus on doing just that. Once modern art took over, and especially since artists began investigating minimalism and conceptualism in the ’60s and ’70s, art could be ugly; occasionally, it is not intended to be sellable at all. In the past, this has been another source of conflict between DAM’s exhibition committee and board members. It was a financial and aesthetic problem.

Gerry Craig was successful during her tenure as director at mixing risky shows with more traditional holiday and garden sales of crafts and functional items. But Craig also believes it is insulting to assume the Detroit community can’t handle challenging art: “It is a matter of educating the public to value artwork and to understand that artists are professionals, not hobbyists. Many people who complain about high prices spend $1,000 on a sport jacket. You have to teach people that artists put their life into their work.”

This is why it is so important that DAM maintains a strong outreach program, not only for children who aren’t getting the art education they need in school, but for people who feel threatened by art, believing they should understand it and feeling intimidated when they don’t. To this, Craig says, “If you can’t speak Japanese, you don’t feel stupid for not understanding. If you don’t get art, that’s because you don’t know the visual language.” That’s why she developed the young collectors lecture series, called But I Know I Like It, to teach people how to look at art, where to start.

The first step is getting people through the doors. In an effort to attract a wider audience to the gallery, Craig also pulled off one of DAM’s more successful outreach events. Fore Art was an 18-hole miniature golf course, each hole created by an artist. For the event, Stroh River Place donated 12,000 square feet down the hall from the gallery’s location at the time. According to several accounts, it brought people into DAM and succeeded financially. But it is also important to make sure visitors feel comfortable looking at the art. Craig believes in opening up a thoughtful dialogue between the gallery staff and visitors, providing for the public what she calls casual mentorship. That conversation can happen every time someone walks through the doors, but at most galleries it doesn’t.

Not having a gallery district is a problem in Detroit. Seeing a lot of art all at once, even if it is dreck, offers people the chance to decide what they like and what they don’t all at once. “Even if it’s schlock, gallery walks work,” Craig says.

And, for its part, DAM needs to pick up the pace and begin curating different kinds of shows to be relevant. As a teacher at Wayne State, Abt says he sees the interests of young people shifting from traditional media. Film and video are where the action is.

Abt says the interest in visual culture is more intense than ever. “But we are talking about an Internet-based and game culture,” he says.

DAM can’t ignore these emerging artists.

There are also a lot of artists in Detroit still focusing on high-quality craftsmanship in traditional media, but whose work is often a direct reference to pop culture. Mitch Cope’s M.O.R.E. exhibit focused on showing how artists can immerse themselves in a changing culture driven by corporations and consumerism. It also presented works in new media; for example, architect Regina Reichart created an interactive map of Detroit. When DAM was founded, no one could have imagined anything in that show as art. Yet whatever the form, the question of how to support it is complicated.

Under the radar

When the gallery opened in 1932, Simpson was primarily concerned with supporting Detroit artists financially. “When the Depression came along,” Simpson said in the Detroit Free Press in 1940, “I saw all those boys and girls graduating from art school without the prospect of getting jobs. Something just had to be done.” To that end, she personally wrote them seven-page letters explaining her ideas and how she planned to follow through with them, offering passionate words of encouragement in her closing.

Today, DAM’s mission is “to serve the Detroit arts community by exhibiting and promoting the work of emerging and established Detroit, Michigan, and national artists.” The problem is deciding how best to serve Detroit artists and community members — either by simply showing the work of Detroit artists or by exhibiting the work of their peers from around the country.

And the importance of the exposure may not be in immediate sales; a lot of what DAM can do for an artist goes below the radar. Someone like Dick Goody, curator at Meadowbrook Gallery, may see work in a group show and offer to give one artist a solo show. Only the most astute scene followers will trace the success back to a place like DAM.

Critic Miro says, “For local artists, it is frustrating when you don’t have institutional approval. The DIA and Cranbrook can’t really do it. For a while, Detroit Focus helped fill that niche, and Tangent Gallery did a great job. But where do you go now? You need some kind of place where people can see what is happening in Detroit, otherwise you a have a disparate, fractured scene. I think Aaron did a great job of keeping his ear to the pulse and translating it to a variety of shows and that’s going to be sorely missed. But DAM is still a really important component of the local art scene.”

Distinct from a contemporary arts museum that would bring artists from around the nation and world into Detroit for exhibitions, Miro thinks DAM is best at showing as much local art as possible in as many different ways as possible, and to facilitate getting the work to the rest of the world.

“It also needs to think of what it could do for education and developing the local citizen,” Miro says. It’s important to encourage a more intimate dialogue between artists, collectors and the general public. This can be accomplished by placing more emphasis on programs such as visits to private collections and artists’ studios.

Some young artists have also commented on the importance of developing DAM’s resource center, which, if functioning properly, could be filled with slides of artists’ work, providing access for dealers and gallery owners. Artists and patrons also complain that the offering of items for sale in Elements Gallery, DAM’s small retail store, seems to have grown stale and should have a more cutting-edge sensibility.

Ironically, some young artists aren’t angry that Aaron Timlin got fired; they are resentful DAM tapped him as director in the first place. They claim that Timlin was successful at Detroit Contemporary and his ideas just didn’t translate well at Detroit Artists Market. Meanwhile Detroit Contemporary, which was taken over by Timlin’s then-girlfriend Phaedra Robinson, eventually closed, becoming yet another great-while-it-lasted spot. With Contemporary out of business and Timlin out at DAM, young artists see a lose-lose situation.

Energized but ...

A lot is going at DAM as it tries to keep itself afloat with an interim staff led by Mary Harrison, former CPOP gallery director. (Interim director Steve Horne left after taking the post for only a short while.) There is a search for a new director and the group has begun strategic planning, led by independent consultant Marilyn Wheaton, formerly director of the Cultural Affairs Department of the city of Detroit. In October, board member Dan Graschuck, an artist, curator and important collector of Detroit art, is taking over as board chair. Graschuck, a former principal at a Detroit public school, has been involved in the local scene for years, curating shows at the former Michigan Gallery. He emphasizes the importance of getting more artists involved in DAM’s board, not just on the exhibition committee. Noted artist Charles McGee is to join on.

There has also been buzz about the upcoming show Metalize, curated by board member Georgio Gikas, owner of the Venus Bronze sculptural conservation company, a guy with a great eye for high-quality works in metal. Metalize will present art by Wayne State and College for Creative Studies students, the custom-designed motorcycles of Ron Fench and the Detroit Bros., along with work by renowned art world figures, such as MacArthur “genius grant” fellow Tom Joyce, a blacksmith who was recently featured in the Sunday edition of The New York Times.

The rest of the exhibition schedule is already in the works, and it will be interesting to see what is in store — whether it’s the kind of work that will engage those who are not easily impressed and reach out to the artists in town who feel neglected. Word has it that the energy level at the organization is higher than it has been in a long time. But it will take more than energy alone to make Detroit Artists Market the vital space it once was.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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