metro Detroit art beat for six decades has been a great ride. It has
kept me young at heart, close to the people I admire most and well
supplied with flashbacks.
I'll never forget how
Sam Wagstaff, the curator of modern art at the Detroit Institute of
Arts during the 1960s, invited earthwork-meister Mike Heizer to drag
a two-ton boulder across the museum's north lawn. The piece was
exciting to watch and it turned me into a Heizer fan. But furious
trustees couldn't wait to fix the busted sidewalks and mutilated
grass. Manicured lawns won over art.
There was the time
artist Stephen Goodfellow rallied disgruntled artists, who
complained the DIA was ignoring them, and showed them how to get
their images on the museum's walls. They waited until dark, loaded
their slides and projected them outdoors on the John R facade.
Or, there was the
summer Aaron Timlin walked to New York wearing a cardboard carton
with "Got Art?" inscribed on the sides. His reason: To raise money
for his Detroit Contemporary gallery. He didn't get much cash but he
did come home with a case of poison ivy.
Guyton create the "Heidelberg Project" over the past 20 years,
infusing objects others discarded with his brand of magic, has been
a rich source of stories.
Also, I have greatly
enjoyed discovering "underground" art at the CPOP Gallery with the
likes of Glenn Barr, Camilo Pardo and the wonderful Niagara, whose
tough-talking persona hides a very soft heart. (OK, so I'm ruining
I came to The
Detroit News in 1946, fresh out of the Wayne State University
art department with a degree in painting. I got the art critic's job
a year later. I had learned enough to know I'd never be a painter.
At the same time, I had acquired a profound respect for those
blessed with creativity and the drive to make it visible.
Art never was a
full-time beat at The News. In the beginning I also was
beauty editor, writing about hairstyles and perfume under the byline
Lucy Carroll. When I'd go to New York on dual assignments, I'd
register at a hotel under two names — my own and Lucy's. I'd dream
up stunts to make my other life interesting, like a silent wig
interview with Harpo Marx and dyeing a model's hair green on St.
Patrick's Day in order to parade her around town for reactions.
Though I had some
fun on the beauty beat, my true love was art. I've watched the art
community go through various phases, some exciting and others
forgettable. Compared to what's gone before, this is an interesting
period caught in a difficult balancing act. On one hand, artists are
pouring energy into digital works, photo-based projects and
innovative installations, as well as finding fresh approaches to
so-called "realism." On the other hand, a difficult economy is
drying up funds for cultural organizations and driving away art
buyers. But this too will change.
During the second
half of the 1940s, Detroit, like the rest of the country, was
healing from World War II. Art schools were training a new
generation of artists, many of them veterans studying on the GI
Bill. The old Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts School on Watson
Street was active again, building the momentum that would turn it
into the College for Creative Studies several decades down the road.
In 1956, I wrote the
50-year history of the arts and crafts movement in Detroit. My
research for the book, Art and a City, revealed that Detroit
society was one of the leading arts and crafts centers in the
country at the turn-of-the 20th century and that it laid the
foundation for the art community that exists here today. The
institutions that grew from it include Pewabic Pottery, Cranbrook
Academy of Art, Cranbrook Art Museum and the Detroit Artists Market.
Arts and crafts leaders also were major "angels" for the DIA. They
included Cranbrook founder George Gough Booth and Robert Hudson
Tannahill, who bequeathed his important collection to the Detroit
The late 1960s and
1970s also made art history in Detroit. Two major groups working and
exhibiting separately pumped energy into the community — the Cass
Corridor artists and the Gallery 7 artists led by Charles McGee.
The Cass Corridor
gang consisted mostly of male professors and art students at Wayne
State. They made art along a seedy stretch of Cass Avenue, they
drank at Cobb's Corner at Cass and Willis, and they exhibited at the
Willis Gallery down the block. The Willis was a run-down storefront.
But I can remember walking through with Philip Guston, who admired
the proportions of the space enough to say he wouldn't mind showing
his own work there.
The DIA's Sam
Wagstaff inspired and encouraged Cass Corridor artists, such as
Gordon Newton, Michael Luchs, Douglas James and Jim Chatelain.
Susanne Hilberry, who owns a leading gallery today, worked at the
museum with Wagstaff in those days and was an important part of the
Cass Corridor energy.
The Cass Corridor
guys ignored industrial Detroit as a subject. Instead, they forged a
gritty form of expressionism out of the bits and pieces of a
decaying inner city. Ironically, the two women in the group — Ellen
Phelan and Nancy Mitchnick — were the only members of the original
gang to survive in New York and gain national attention.
When the Detroit
Artists Market invited Charles McGee to curate an exhibit in 1969,
he came up with 7 Black Artists. After the successful show
came down, he opened Gallery 7 on West McNichols to showcase
African-American artists. McGee has been a powerhouse in the local
art community as a teacher, exhibitor and role model. The DIA
honored him with a one-man exhibit on his 70th birthday, 11 years
ago. Among his many commissions are murals he did for the DIA, the
Detroit People Mover and Beaumont Hospital.
McGee took Gallery 7
to the Fisher Building, where the Detroit art scene was centered in
the 1970s. Even the Willis Gallery moved there for a time, but soon
folded. Commercial galleries such as the Kasle and the Feigenson
showed both national and Michigan artists, a mix that was healthy
for the local art community.
In fact, Detroit has
been blessed with good galleries through the years. Without them we
never would have seen much of what was happening around the country.
We've had survivors who followed the lead of the late Donald Morris
and his family, who brought in top-flight exhibits for some 40
years, beginning in 1958. Other galleries still contributing to the
community after several decades are the Susanne Hilberry, the Robert
Kidd (directed by Ray Fleming), the Lemberg and the G.R. N'Namdi.
By specializing in
African-American art and encouraging black collectors to invest in
their heritage, George N'Namdi has been influential in creating a
strong market nationally. Watching the African-American field grow
and the history of neglected artists be revealed has been a
highlight of my years of writing about art. The DIA's Graham W. J.
Beal was the first art museum director in the country to devote a
department to African-American art and to head it with an
outstanding curator like Valerie Mercer.
Beal is the fifth
director to head the city-owned DIA since I began writing about art
for The News. The first was Edgar P. Richardson, whose
passionate support helped Americans respect and love our own art. It
had been the way of the art world to discount just about everything
by Americans in favor of a European aesthetic. But Richardson's
books, exhibits and collecting for the DIA proved what a rich
heritage Americans have.
successor, Willis F. Woods, opened the DIA's doors to African art at
a time when the black community was demanding that their heritage be
acknowledged too. The legendary Dr. Charles H. Wright, founder of
the Museum of African American History, joined a protest march in
front of the museum to make the point. It was on Woods' watch that
the Friends of African Art support group was formed to raise money
for purchases. Former Michigan Gov. G. Mennen ("Soapy") Williams
gave the museum a collection of African artifacts he had acquired
while he was a U.S. ambassador in Africa. Frederick J. Cummings, who
became director after Woods left, brought in Michael Kan to build an
African collection now ranked as one of the country's finest.
Although he had
impeccable scholarly credentials, Cummings was a big spender. So
big, in fact, that Mayor Coleman A. Young suspected wrong-doing in
the early 1980s and sent in armed guards to carry off the DIA's
books for examination at City Hall. I happened to be in the museum
that day, watching it all go down. It turned out that the director
had splurged by jetting to Europe on the Concorde, running up
excessive hotel and restaurant bills and buying art from cronies at
inflated prices. He was eased out of the city-owned museum and
headed for New York as a private art dealer with a suite in Trump
Sam Sachs II
followed Cummings to the director's chair in 1985, the year the DIA
turned 100. His greatest contribution during the 1990s was in
changing the DIA governance from the city to the Founders Society,
which had been providing most of the funding for years.
After he left
Detroit to become director of the Frick Collection, Sachs confessed
something that intrigued me when I interviewed him in New York. He
had only been in Detroit a short time when Mayor Young demanded that
he join other department heads in patroling the city streets to
catch arsonists on Devil's Night. The new director complied but was
so outraged that he was tempted to leave his new post before he got
That wasn't the
first time museum directors and curators walked a tight rope between
demanding city officials and angry local artists. The worst case was
how Jan van der Marck lost his job and the community lost a
first-rate curator of modern art. He was accused of breaking the
city's residency rule by living in Oakland County even though he
kept an apartment in Detroit, received his mail there and voted
Sachs, for his part,
landed in deep trouble with local artists when he offered a
non-juried show open to everyone who limited the size of their work
to 12 inches or less. He called it a "foot-in-the-door" exhibit and
couldn't understand why he was roundly booed by more than 100
artists, who had turned out for a meeting. He said this kind of show
had been a success when he was director of the Minneapolis Museum.
For as long as I can
remember, artists who live and work here have been critical of the
encyclopedic DIA for not doing more with contemporary art. Jef
Bourgeau, an innovative artist in his own right, has been struggling
to get his Museum of New Art (MONA) off the ground for 10 years.
However, it never attracted the financial lifeline it needs.
Now, there's hope
that Detroit will join other major cities in having an independent
museum devoted to the art of today. The recently formed Museum of
Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) has a building on Woodward just
south of the Cultural Center, an exhibit in the works (curated by
New Yorker Klaus Kertess), an opening set for October and a
dedicated group of supporters raising funds.
One regret is that I
won't be writing about the progress of MOCAD because I'm moving to
St. Louis. Earlier this year, I had been considering retirement. My
husband and I wanted to move to St. Louis to be closer to our
family. When The News offered a buyout, I decided to take it
— on the day of the deadline.
I left The News
in April, but the art beat left me months, even years ago. It
strikes me as particularly ironic that The News should join
other metropolitan dailies across the country in drastically cutting
coverage of the visual arts. When I first came to the paper — and
during most of my career there — it was owned by the Booth/Scripps
family, the major art patrons who founded and owned Cranbrook. Not
being able to review exhibits for The News or even get the
space to cover the art news adequately has been a pain for me
because it ignores the values I consider vital to a civilized
society. Even sadder is that nobody else is likely to get the chance
to take the same great ride I had on a metropolitan daily newspaper
Hakanson Colby is a freelance writer moving to St. Louis. Send
The eminent Detroit art critic Joy Hakanson Colby has left us and
moved to St. Louis.
Coming to Detroit at the ebb of the Cass Corridor art movement on
1975, I rapidly discovered that the best cultural lifeline to
what was going on in area was the art reviews by Joy Hakanson Colby.
As the years have gone by, her indefatigable journey from gallery to
gallery, artist to artist became a resource that I expected and
thought would never end. Now that her wisdom and introspection is
gone from the weekly literature of Detroit, I feel a deep sense of
sorrow and loss. I salute you Joy, and thank you from the bottom of
my heart for making this age and place richer by your being here.
St. Louis is lucky to have you. So good luck, and may the wind be at
your back. We'll miss you, Joy.
If you have a remembrance
share it with us.