Arts & Culture » Culture

Belle Isle Art Fair returns for its second year

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Mom would be so proud.

When Mark Loeb was a kid, he attended the Ann Arbor Art Fair every summer to assist his mother, Judy, an artist and teacher who relocated from Philadelphia with her family to join the faculty at Eastern Michigan University. "My brother and I would hang out at the fair, doing our best to keep out of trouble," he recalls. "Or trying to keep the people out of her hair."

His mother has been gone for some time ("This is where we put in the public service announcement: Don't smoke!" Loeb cautions), but he's keeping the family heritage alive. Through his Detroit-based company Integrity Shows, Mark Loeb and his staff resurrected the once-beloved Palmer Park Art Fair three years ago after a three-decade absence, then last summer introduced the Belle Isle Art Fair, which returns to America's urban island park this Saturday and Sunday next to Scott Fountain.

With both events, Loeb seeks to duplicate the magic and mystique he experienced during those summers in Ann Arbor. In conversation, he refers to himself — quite accurately — as an "art revivalist."

"It used to be that Detroit had at least five art fairs in the city every year," says Loeb, 57, whose firm once produced events across the nation but now focuses on metro Detroit. "One by one they all disappeared, the last of them when the Detroit Festival of the Arts closed up about eight years ago."

There are various reasons the art departed, Loeb suggests — Detroit's dwindling population base, lack of institutional support, marketing inertia — but one factor that can't be overlooked, especially for Palmer Park, was that "the park just didn't feel safe at one point," he says. "And people aren't going to come in, and artists won't want to be there, if they don't feel safe."

However, with the city's demographic shifts and downtown revitalization in recent years, Loeb thought it might be a good time to revisit art in Palmer Park.

"It had been such a popular event in the '70s and '80s, and right away it became kind of a mission and a blessing to be able to revive it," he says. "You know, I've created new things in the city, but to be able to bring back something that was a treasure just felt so important."

As for the artists, "there were enough of them who said, 'We need to bring this back' that they agreed to put in the effort," he says. "The first year we had almost a dozen artists who had displayed in the original fair, some of whom weren't even doing fairs anymore, but they saw the importance of coming back.

"And, there are enough people in the city that have the means to buy art. That was one of the first communications I had, asking patrons, 'Will you commit to spending part of your art budget here?'"

The result? The first year alone, the rejuvenated Palmer Park Art Fair attracted visitors from 20 states — many of whom purchased local printmaker Amy Ferguson's original, limited edition poster, a rare offering at today's art fairs. "We found out that 60 percent of the people who turned out had never been to Palmer Park before," says Loeb. "Many had driven by for decades, had seen the fence and the trees, but never really knew what was back there."

Among the new things he's created is this weekend's Belle Isle Art Fair, which features more than 100 juried artists on display. The island itself is an undisputed local jewel: The goal for this event, Loeb explains, was to give people a reason to come to the island again and help repair the resentment felt by some Detroit residents since the Michigan Department of Natural Resources turned Belle Isle into a state park and assumed management in 2013.

"We worked extensively with a lot of Detroit artists, really networking with them to figure out how to keep the Detroit emphasis strong," Loeb says.

"At the same time some people asked, 'Shouldn't it just be Detroiters?' I said no, because we need that mixture of people from different areas, different cultures, so that everybody's learning from each other. We want to export Detroit art, too. We want Detroit artists to be out there, to have their work shown in other cities."

Loeb also wants to help groom the next generation of Detroit artists. He and his wife, Vickie (Elmer, the former Free Press assistant business editor) have founded a program called the Mint Artists Guild, working with teens primarily from Detroit Public Schools who display an aptitude for art and showing them how to turn their creativity into a career. There's grooming in his own family as well: Loeb's son, Sean, 20, is part of the Integrity Shows team.

Integrity also produces such annual events as the Funky Ferndale Art Fair and the Royal Oak Clay, Glass & Metal Show. Loeb says he still tinkers at creating sculptural art, but describes himself as a "hack." His true talent, he believes, is in creating the environments that showcase artwork best. His artists might agree.

"Mark is very, very good to work with," says Detroit favorite son Ron Scarborough, award-winning artist and illustrator. "Very understanding, very helpful. He couldn't be better."

The Belle Isle Art Fair runs from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday; Sunset Dr., Detroit; belleisleartfair.com; Admission is free.

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