Nestled in a picturesque ravine with a view of the posh Oakland Hills Country Club, the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center is one of metro Detroit’s biggest, most active community arts organizations, but it hasn’t been much of a contemporary art space — until now. The BBAC recently named John Cynar, a photographer, sculptor, curator and stalwart in the local arts scene, as its exhibition and gallery director. Many in the arts community are crossing their fingers that Cynar will use the BBAC’s spacious interior to ease metro Detroit’s dearth of contemporary art exhibition space.
The 40-year-old Birmingham resident might just have the ambition and energy to get the job done.
“There’s a lot of space to work with here,” Cynar says. “I want to bring a lot of things in — art, poetry and music — so we can have a wider range of programming. I can do things that a lot of other places can’t just because I have the room.”
Cynar came to the BBAC last year as a consultant. Before that he booked exhibitions at Paint Creek Center for the Arts in downtown Rochester. Cynar spearheaded Paint Creek’s involvement in the acclaimed 2003 exhibition, Detroit Now, in which four galleries joined forces to raise the profile of the local contemporary art scene by highlighting important local artists; other participants were Meadow Brook Art Gallery, Detroit Artists Market and detroit contemporary.
“I was just ready for a new direction,” says Cynar of his departure from Paint Creek.
At the BBAC, Cynar is off and running. His first curated exhibition runs through Friday, Oct. 8. Called Show and Tell, the show features collaborations between artists and poets.
Up to now, the BBAC has primarily been known as a place to go for excellent art classes, often taught by the best in local painters, sculptors, photographers, etc.
“I want to bring the exhibition programs at the BBAC up to par with the education programs,” he says. “There are a lot of good teachers here. And the work in Detroit overall is as good as anywhere. What we’re missing are venues for all these good artists to show.”
Cynar founded Start Gallery in the mid-1990s in a second-floor space in downtown Birmingham with the express goal of showcasing local art. The purpose of Start was to bring artists from Detroit to the suburbs to exhibit, because so many collectors weren’t going downtown. Cynar ran the gallery as a commercial enterprise for two and a half years.
He’s also been involved with Jef Bourgeau’s Museum of New Art (now located in Pontiac) through its many ups and downs over the years.
“I’m still a firm believer that we need to have a contemporary museum,” he says of metro Detroit.
Cynar’s life as an art impresario would seem improbable given his beginnings. Often seen in preppy polo shirts and khakis, Cynar was born and raised in Warren. He took one art class as a teenager and says the teacher strongly discouraged him from getting into the arts.
“I wanted to go into architecture,” Cynar says. “So I took a few foundation-level art classes at Macomb County Community College with [sculptors] Jim Pallas and Dave Barr. And that opened a door for me.”
Cynar spent a year bumming around the beaches of Los Angeles, but his mind kept drifting back to the Motor City and the local art scene. He applied to Wayne State’s sculpture program, primarily due to the examples of Pallas and Barr.
“Those guys went to Wayne State, so I thought that must be a good place to go,” he says.
He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture from WSU and began hanging around the downtown scene at places like the Michigan Gallery (now Zeitgeist), Detroit Focus and Detroit Artists Market. “Those places let me see what artists were doing in Detroit,” he says.
Later, he featured at Start many of the artists he met in those early days. Cynar is also a member of the City of Birmingham Public Arts Board. The group is trying to come up with money to offer commissions or stipends for five artists to do public art projects in the city. One hurdle is the lack of public funding for the arts, which hasn’t recovered from the budget ax wielded by Republican Gov. John Engler in the early 1990s.
For Cynar, it’s just another challenge to be met. He points to the little town of Douglas, Mich., where the city government has commissioned public art works.
“If Douglas can do it, Birmingham should be able to, too,” Cynar says.
The BBAC is located at 1516 S. Cranbrook Road in Birmingham. To learn more about art classes and exhibits, visit www.bbartcenter.org or call 248-644-0866.Vince Carducci is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comment to [email protected]