The Baltimore Gallery, an art hotspot that brought a burst of color to an otherwise quiet block in Detroit, will soon close its doors.
Formerly known as the Untitled Bottega, the gallery was renamed when artist Phillip Simpson took over as gallery director in 2015. Since then, the building has been covered in bold murals, including one of Simpson's "Smile" logos from his T-shirts company. Along with the nearby Tangent Gallery and Hastings Street Ballroom and the new Kiesling Bar, it helped anchor a small arts scene in Detroit's Milwaukee Junction neighborhood.
Yes, Milwaukee Junction — not the North End, not Midtown. Simpson says it was important for him to differentiate the neighborhood from the trendier Midtown, which seems to be creeping north along the QLine tracks, by embracing its historic name.
"From day one, I was always excited and purposely talked about Milwaukee Junction," he says. "I mean, I really wanted to push that because I thought this area was so awesome."
Like the Untitled Bottega, the scrappy gallery was known for its diverse shows, especially among the young Black art scene. But Simpson says he never wanted it to be pigeonholed.
"The gallery was for everybody," he says."Some of the other galleries in the city will not take on super new artists. But I enjoyed working with new artists because that's how we get started. We all grew up together in this process."
Simpson says he particularly loved working with new artists, helping them brainstorm and execute their ideas. "I fell in love with running a gallery, working with the artists from concept to fruition, and even going over the pricing," he says. "Those are things that I got really excited about it. I got a chance to meet a ton of new artists that way."
"I always wanted people to know that when you came into the doors of the Baltimore Gallery, it was no judgment," he says.
But while helping a new artist find their voice might be priceless, Simpson says it was always tough to turn the gallery into a profitable endeavor just from the art shows.
"There's not that many art buyers between, like, 18 and 27," he says. "It's a hip crowd, which is always welcomed. But it was trying to sell art to other artists."
Eventually, Simpson realized he could make money by opening the gallery to host other events. Students from the nearby College for Creative Studies and Wayne State University used the space to host their thesis exhibitions. Eventually, the spot started hosting events like birthdays, graduations, and even weddings for people in the art scene.
"We've had some wonderful wedding receptions that wasn't art-related, but just the fact that someone brought their love here and filled the space with their family and friends on such a serious day was incredible to me," he says.
At one point, Simspon says the space was running up to four events a week, which started to become too much.
"I mean, I always tell people if my goal was to be an event space, we probably could have been the best event space," he says. "You know, we just would have figured that out. But I knew for sure that I just wasn't that good with staying up late, cleaning up after people."
There were other changes, too. During his time as a gallery owner, Simpson became a husband and a father. He says he'd like to focus next on developing his Smile brand and also his family, making it a family business. He got a no-interest loan from the Build Institute incubator to help kickstart his business, and has six mural projects lined up in Detroit.
"It won't be a slow summer at all," he says.
But Simpson waxes nostalgic for the community he was the center of at the gallery.
"I wouldn't be here without the artists who came to the Baltimore Gallery," he says. "And it wouldn't be what it is without the creativeness, the people that frequent here weekly or daily. Over the last four years, there was a few people who was here just as much as me, you know, creating. Sometimes we'd just have open paint dates and everybody would bring stuff in and just create. I think it just provided a safe space for artists to brainstorm and to be free, especially some of the younger generation."
He says some artists would always turn up when it came time to take a show down and repaint the walls white — guys like James "Jimbo" Braddock, Eric "El Cappy" Lowry, and Antonio "Tony WHLGN" Robinson from the WHLGN collective.
"The cool part about Jimbo is that he was from the Untitled Bottega family," Simpson says. "And when I came over, he just kept staying around here. We ended up becoming like a family. We talked about life. We talked about art."
Another notable regular was Conner "Youngestwaffle" Henninger, who started coming to the gallery when he was just a teenager. "Him and his dad, they never missed an exhibit," Simpson says. "He's one of the largest collectors under 20. He started collecting work at like, 15."
Before it shutters, the gallery will throw one last exhibition — featuring many of the names who frequented the spot since its Untitled Bottega days. Fittingly, Henninger is one of the co-curators.
Simpson says maybe one day he'd like to run another art space, but says he'd like to own it. No matter what he does, he knows he'll still be part of Detroit's tight-knit art scene.
"Whatever my next step is, and I'm not 100 percent sure what it will be, but the art scene will support it," he says. "That's so cool."
Moven Pictures has an opening reception from 7-10 p.m. on Friday, May 31 at the Baltimore Gallery, 314 E. Baltimore St., Detroit; facebook.com/thebaltimoregallery. The show runs through the end of June.