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Detroit art 2013: the year in review

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The biggest story for the arts in Detroit in 2013 was the potential sale of artwork at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), which had narrowly escaped financial distress in 2012 thanks to a crucial millage. Despite many legal challenges, bankruptcy proceedings for the City of Detroit started in 2013 in federal court, causing residents to worry that “corporate vultures” could swoop in and grab valuable artwork for pennies on the dollar of what the pieces would cost in New York and still fall short of paying the city's creditors.

Several protesters gathered in front of the museum on October 4 to denounce Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr's plan and tell “corporate vultures [to] keep your hands off our culture.” Many carried signs, a few provided rhythmic support for the chanting on various drums. There exists the possibility that the idea to sell off the DIA's holdings was a ploy to distract the public from the sale of more easily monetizable city assets like the Water Department.

One of the protesters was Katie Craig, a graduate of the College for Creative Studies (CCS), who carried around an empty frame to symbolize the consequences of the sale of the DIA's holdings. Another protester was Craig's former instructor at CCS, Prof. Gilda Snowden, who has five pieces in the DIA's permanent collection.

Snowden continues to be a central figure in Detroit art, and to receive accolades. On November 4, the Board of the Wayne State University College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts Alumni Association unanimously passed a resolution congratulating her for her achievements so far and wishing her many more years of continued success.

That was after her show at Cass Cafe with her daughter Katherine Boswell, and after the opening of her retrospective at Oakland University. Planning continued in 2013 on a tribute show at Whitdel Arts slated for January 2014 which was first formally proposed in September 2012; the idea had been “in the air,” so to speak, since at least 2011.

Snowden was one of the first to receive the Kresge Fellowship from the Kresge Foundation when the program started in 2009. Since then, Fellows have been named in the Visual Arts category every other year. The most important 2013 Fellows in Visual Arts are Carl Wilson and Bryant Tillman, the latter long recognized as Detroit's most renowned painter.

The Kresge Fellowship is a very good prize for an artist to receive because there are no restrictions on how the artist may use the monetary portion ($25,000): it can be something directly necessary for the artwork, it can be something completely frivolous and unnecessary, or anything in between; and there is no need to seek matching funds.

Tillman was surprised that many people told him that he really did deserve the Kresge Fellowship. There is a strong awareness that committees tend to go for safe choices. Perhaps a couple of decades ago Tillman would have been a risky choice. But now that Tillman, despite being a highly self-critical perfectionist who works slowly and meticulously, has amassed a significant body of work and built an excellent reputation as both a painter and a curator, he has become someone safe to choose for even the dullest committee.

At about the time the Kresge announcement was made, Tillman was helping a group of photographers put on a show of surreal photography at his gallery, the 4731 on Grand River Avenue. Titled Laerrus, the show introduced Detroit art lovers to the work of Kylen Louanne Palmer and Sydney Kispert Bostick, the latter better known for her photojournalism than for her art photography. The show did include one painting, a portrait of Michelle Tanguay by Kelly Guillory, months before she released the Blood Money, a graphic novel set in Detroit. After Laerrus, Tillman curated an anti-war show spearheaded by Joe Lovett and Jack Summers.

Whitdel Arts, the plucky little gallery in Mexicantown, continues to solidify its reputation in Detroit with high quality shows that don't fit into any predictable pattern. Whitdel started the year with Movement and Position, followed up with the immersing installation art of Anywhere But Here, the little anticipated but ultimately haunting Containment: A Life of Hoarding and Hiding, the quirky Improbably Objects.

The gallery is in demand, so artists wanting to propose shows need to do so at least a year prior to the intended opening date. Besides the highly anticipated homage to Snowden, there was also planning throughout the year for the “temporary show” in 2014, the concept of the show being impermanence, likely to include artwork that will visibly but gradually change during the show's run.

Expect in 2014 to hear success stories from Red Bull House of Art artists chosen in 2013, quite likely to include William Harris and Sydney James. Michelle Tanguay has done very well since being chosen in 2012, so much so that in 2013 she had to get an agent. The House of Art program is like a fellowship: the chosen artists are provided with all the art materials they need and they get to keep all proceeds from the sales of their artwork. The artists are chosen not by a committee but by one man, Matt Eaton, enabling the gallery to take risks on young artists lacking the grooming needed for programs like the Kresge Fellowship. These risks have paid off and will continue to pay off.

A new project at the Red Bull House of Art is a series of Saturday workshops open to everyone and at first taught by prior Red Bull House of Art artists. It started off in June 2013 with Craig Paul Nowak (Round 3) teaching the basics of drip painting, Michelle Tanguay (Round 2) showing how to stretch a canvas and Edward Foster (Round 3) giving a very enlightening exposition on the rather deep topic of color theory. The workshops continued until October taught by older artists; a workshop to be taught by children was canceled. There is no word yet as to whether the Saturday workshops will continue in 2014.

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