Inside a stodgy, gray warehouse in Ypsilanti, a 70-foot mural explodes across the wall, blasting out swirls of color that splash onto the concrete floor.
A stroll through the airy building reveals more signs of artistic prowess: paper lanterns suspended from the ceiling, a jarring partition built of aluminum and wood, and a curved projection that looks like the side of a spaceship. The sheer energy pervading the space is astounding, which is, in turn, a shame. The warehouse is slated for demolition in May.
Welcome to 555 Studio/Gallery, a collective with two goals: to provide workspace for practicing artists and exhibition space for finished work.
Ideally, 555 would be any “cool city’s” dream: A group of artists who provide feedback for one another’s projects, encourage the community to visit their workspace, and host exhibits by well-known and local talent alike. But finding a city cool enough to support their creative efforts has been no easy feat.
The gallery’s problems began in November 2003 when the artists were abruptly evicted from Ann Arbor’s Technology Center, a former needle factory that creative types had been renting as studio space for the past 20 or so years. The Tech Center was a staple of Ann Arbor’s once-thick bohemian scene. At the time of its demise, more than 100 working artists were renting space and the building also housed the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.
The Tech Center was sold to the YMCA in 2002, but tenants insist they received no eviction notice before fire inspectors raided the building nearly a year later.
“They just started walking through the warehouse, kicking in the doors, telling us to get out,” says 555 senior director Carl Goines. Tenants were given 24 hours to pack their materials and vacate the premises. (Ron Heemstra, the Ann Arbor fire inspector who led the raid, said the issue was that there were “squatters,” and "a portion of the building that was unsafe to be living in." Members of the 555 insist they weren’t squatting.)
Many artists relocated to tiny basements and garages, but 555 secured a huge 13,000-square-foot warehouse in Ypsilanti where the collective could thrive. The catch: Their lease expires this month.
In all fairness, associates say, they were made aware of the temporary nature of the space at the onset of their lease (the spot will be the site of a new townhouse development). But the problem of finding a large, affordable workspace with accompanying gallery space compelled them to take it anyway.
Since its inception in 2002, 555’s exhibitions have spanned a multitude of genres, from puppetry to fashion, electronic music to film. Some tend toward the eccentric (a flesh-hook suspension show hosted by a local tattoo and piercing shop), others toward the political (“Revelations of the Uprooted” featured the work of an Iranian and Korean artist, respectively, during the media hype that preceded the war in Iraq).
The opinions expressed in the exhibitions might not always reflect those of the 15 associates, but 555 is committed to creating a space where all voices have an opportunity to be heard. Many members are recent graduates of the University of Michigan; others serve as art faculty both there and at Washtenaw Community College, Schoolcraft College and Lansing Community College. But despite their stellar credentials, the artists have been faced with just as many problems in Ypsilanti as in Ann Arbor.
The Ypsi space has enjoyed heavy foot traffic and obvious public interest, but red tape prevented 555 from producing more than four shows this year (though they averaged about 160 guests per show, including Ypsilanti Mayor Cheryl C. Farmer at one of them). Steven Samuels, the group’s director of public relations and marketing, says the city gave them their Certificate of Public Occupancy just this month.
Samuels, an industrial and graphic designer whose work was recently displayed at the the Smithsonian Museum of Arts and Industry, says 555 could play a huge role in motivating young people to visit Ypsilanti, a town whose only draws, he says, are the bars and the Déjà Vu strip club. “Something like this is what they need.” But many 555 members are ready to bid the city adieu.
Ric Geyer, an executive-on-loan for Governor Granholm’s "Cool Cities" initiative and long-time proponent of Detroit, thinks moving to Detroit, where a strong creative scene is already in the making, could be crucial for the group’s success.
Geyer was introduced to members of the 555 at Arts Advocacy Day in Lansing last year. "They are exactly the kind of people we’re trying to keep in this state," he says. "They’re young, they’re aggressive, they’re technical, they’re entrepreneurial, and I think without people like them, we don’t have a chance."
Geyer believes the way to ensure survival of groups like the 555 is to turn them into arts “incubators,” firms that venture capitalists can run as private enterprises. "They will generate economic activity," Geyer says.
Geyer speaks from experience. In 2000, he and his wife Carey purchased a property on Grand River and transformed the old warehouse into a gallery, workshops and artist studios. The incubator, 4731, now has a number of artists paying a nominal fee for a variety of services: work and network space, Web sites, gallery space, and support services (marketing, public relations, legal, tax, finance, etc.).
Besides benefiting the artists and investors, the enterprise also saves the city from what Geyer calls "architectural homicide."
"To go into a building and rebuild the building is an act of love as much as it is an act of investment," says Geyer.
Monte Martinez, 555’s director, says he’d welcome a move to Detroit as long as the city is committed.
As for the artwork that will be lost inside the Ypsilanti warehouse, including his massive mural, Martinez says he’s learned to accept it. “I see it like a Buddhist, you know: You make something and you let go of it. Same thing with the gallery: You create it and you let go of it.”
Surveying the space one month before demolition, his voice drops and betrays a tinge of disappointment. “I mean, this will be gone, all this work will be gone. Boom, like that.”
The prospect of reinvention will be all that’s left.
Upcoming events at 555 include a Cinco de Mayo celebration with poetry, art and music on Friday, May 7, and a screening of Jeff Jenkin’s video work, May 8. An installation of photo, sculpture and live video continues through Sunday, May 9. "Stringed Matter," an exhibition of works in various media shows May 10-24 with an opening reception Friday, May 14. 555 is located at 200 E. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti. Call 734-482-5310 or visit www.555arts.org.Ronit Feldman writes about arts and other topics for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org