Love gone wrong, economics and booze each played a role in turning the Detroit arts scene a bit on its head.
Last week, Phaedra Robinson announced her departure as director of the detroitcontemporary, while Mitch Cope announced he’s left his spot as Tangent Gallery director. Tangent will continue to operate without a director, while the contemporary will close until September in the wake of Robinson’s departure.
The news is big in a town where only a handful of galleries exhibit up-and-coming, local and unknown artists. Tangent and the contemporary are two of the hottest venues for such shows.
In 1998, Detroit art maven Aaron Timlin opened the contemporary in an abandoned 19th century building on Rosa Parks that’s surrounded by what looks like rural countryside. The gallery quickly became the coolest place in town for avant-garde art and music events, enhanced by an outside double-trailer gallery and a sculpture garden replete with fish pond and wandering chickens, not to mention its beloved throw-down funk and dub reggae dance nights. The contemporary garnered much local and national press.
Robinson, an artist and curator, began working at the contemporary about a year after it opened; she and Timlin became a couple. When he left two years ago to direct the Detroit Artists Market, Robinson took over directing the contemporary. Nearly a year ago, the couple split. Timlin is now engaged to be married to artist Julie Walsh.
Last summer, Robinson stopped throwing detroitcontemporary’s dub and funk dance nights. She says police harassment and the work involved became too much to handle. At the time, she said she was concerned that people considered the contemporary a late-night hangout instead of recognizing it as a gallery.
Timlin acknowledges there were problems.
“There were jerks,” says Timlin. “It’s really disappointing when you put a whole show together and somebody punches a hole in the wall for no reason.”
Yet, “as hard as it was to deal with that, to watch people having total fun, dancing and sweating all night, I was hard-core committed to it.”
Robinson says she wholeheartedly supports multi-use and musical events at galleries, and detroitcontemporary in particular, and she continued to throw music/art events there until the time of her departure. She says she and Timlin simply “came to a point where we realized a change was needed.”
Robinson says she’s excited about her new ventures — guest-curating shows in town, working on her art, serving on juries and working on a new project. Robinson owns an abandoned house near the contemporary that she intends to turn into an artists’ cooperative and resource center, under the umbrella of a nonprofit she’ll helm. The house will be a place where artists can live and work, and where visiting artists can stay. She hopes to turn the center into an international cooperative of artists’ abodes.
“I’ve got projects I need to focus on, and artistically, I had sacrificed my own work, because I believe in detroitcontemporary. It had become like my own child,” Robinson says.
Timlin says he’s looking forward to a new start. He’s going to repair and upgrade the building, including sound and light improvements. He says he’s not sure whether he’ll hire a new director, as he’d like to play a lead role in curating the contemporary while continuing to direct the Detroit Artists Market.
As for Funk Fridays, Timlin says, “I totally miss it,” and he hopes to bring it back.
“I think it’s going to be good, and Phaedra can come back and curate shows, hopefully, and not have to deal with the other stressful hassles,” says Timlin.
Tangent, meanwhile, opened in 2001 on East Milwaukee in the New Center industrial area, and quickly became a popular venue for art, music, theater and performance art events and raucous parties. During his tenure, Cope curated many notable shows, including the Ed Sykes exhibit of whirling, big, crazy machines, the deconstruction and reconstruction of a Birmingham house for use in the gallery, and Brian Nelson’s show, which got a write-up in Sculpture Magazine.
Yet Cope had conflicts with Tangent’s owners. He wanted to host pure art events, shows where art was the prime attraction, sans soiree. But Tangent’s huge warehouse also houses the Hastings Street Ballroom theater, and owners Robin Buckson and Joe VanBael rent the place out for a wide variety of events. The events not only draw a diverse crowd, which Buckson says she likes, but also help pay the bills.
Cope says he got tired of cleaning puke off his desk in the morning, from finding artwork damaged or stolen by drunken idiots, from picking up beer cans and condoms from nooks and crannies where the desperately horny had relieved themselves.
“It was a mess,” says Cope. “It was starting to become a techno center, a party center, a sex center, whatever you want to call it.
“All the galleries in Detroit, people are looking for another source of income, which is understandable. But events at detroitcontemporary, the [Detroit] Artists Market, I was reacting against those things. You go there, and you don’t know what the hell you’re going to get.”
Detroit’s popular lascivious art shows — such as The Dirty Show, to be held at Tangent on Valentine’s Day weekend — are “the kind of stuff that perpetuates this kind of mediocre art world in Detroit,” says Cope. “It could be good, but it’s not … I began to think, ‘This is going to reflect badly on me, or it’s going to hurt the mission of the gallery.’”
Owner Buckson says she and VanBael are looking for a new director, but in the meantime plan to work with guest curators, and hold fewer annual shows. She says she hopes to make the space more secure for art and to pump new life into the building’s nonprofit entity to help get funds. But right now, paying for heat and electricity take priority.
As for Cope’s tenure, “It was wonderful, and I am sad to see him go,” says Buckson.
“We have to pay the bills,” she adds. “The gallery doesn’t pay for itself.”
Both Tangent and the detroitcontemporary keep 40 percent of art sales, less than the 50 percent normally charged by commercial galleries. If the work doesn’t sell, nobody makes money.
“It’s really hard to sell a painting in this town,” says Glen Barr, a successful local artist who sells more paintings, for more money, in Los Angeles than he can in Detroit. “There aren’t a lot of art buyers buying local art.”
CPOP Gallery on Woodward ran into this problem, and last year closed the second floor of its gallery. It now rents the second floor to a record store and recording studio.
Personal relationships entered Cope’s departure from Tangent, as well. He and former girlfriend, artist Helen Bevan, launched Tangent in 2001 with the support of the building’s owners. Bevan left in 2002; she and Cope split. Cope ran the gallery on his own, unpaid, in the role of manager and curator. He married artist/architect Gina Reichert in December.
Cope says now he’s concentrating on his role as a Detroit curator for Shrinking Cities, an international art and architecture project out of Berlin, Germany (see “Detroit is not alone,” Metro Times, Dec. 10, 2003). And he’s looking for a new gallery to curate.
In his absence, Bevan will curate a group show at Tangent this spring, ostensibly a one-time event. Meanwhile, Cope is guest-curating a group show at Ferndale’s Susanne Hilberry Gallery of artists he had planned to show at Tangent, he says.
This all might sound a bit like Peyton Place. And in Detroit’s compact pool of art mover-shakers, perhaps it is. But we can rest assured that we’ll be hearing plenty more from all parties involved, and we should be damn glad they’re here.
In other news, Second City is moving to Novi. Apparently, the Ilitch/Hockeytown kingdom strangled Second City’s space, and the Detroit venue of the storied comedy empire needs some breathing room. What started out as a cabaret area with a bar and tables in the performance room became a traditional theatre seating, says Kelly Leonard, producer of Second City Inc.
“Which is fine, except you eliminate the drink revenue in the theatre, and that sort of communal, informal ambience of people enjoying each other with their cocktails while enjoying the show, that is critical to Second City.” Also, during baseball/football season it cost more to park than to buy a ticket. The exact location of the Novi venue will be announced next week.
Artists and architects take note: The international art/architecture project Shrinking Cities is holding a contest with 10,000-Euro grants (roughly $12,400) for the winners. Come up with an idea for how to reuse Detroit’s blighted spaces in a beautiful way and you could win a grant to implement the project. Of course, any project eventually will have to be approved by the City of Detroit zoning boards, and by City Council if it’s to be on public land, or by the landowner if on private land. But what the hell? Getting the grant will be half the fun. For more information, go to www.shrinkingcities.com/competition.html.Send tips and tidbits of news and fabulous artful events to firstname.lastname@example.org