In many ways, posh suburban Birmingham couldn't be any more different from Detroit, even considering the much-ballyhooed rise of "the 7.2," or the number of square miles most people tend to be referring to when they talk about Detroit's recent redevelopments. But even then, Detroit must have hit some sort of turning point when Birmingham art galleries are giving up what was once considered a safe bet for a downtown move.
Such is the case with two Birmingham-based galleries, which both see expansions into Detroit this month. The David Klein Gallery will mark a quarter-century of business by opening a downtown branch, while the Wasserman Projects, which first opened in 2013, will relocate to an ambitious new space in Eastern Market.
Of course, these galleries are — by far — not the trendsetters here. (One such example: George N'Namdi moved his gallery from Birmingham to Detroit in 2001. Klein occupies his former building.) But speaking to both gallery owners, it's clear that the Detroit moves were determined by shifting outsider attitudes toward Detroit.
David Klein's director of contemporary art, Christine Schefman, says the reasons to move became apparent when they were visiting art fairs around the country. "People would ask us where we're from. When we'd say the Detroit metro area, everyone was getting excited about Detroit," she says. "There was always a reaction, especially in the past couple of years."
Wasserman Projects owner Gary Wasserman echoes those sentiments. "For years people would ask you where you're from and you'd say, 'Detroit' and they would say, 'Why?'" he says. "Today, they ask where you're from and you say, 'Detroit,' you become the center of attention."
Schefman says that the Birmingham space will continue the gallery's reputation of showing postwar and 20th century artwork. But the Detroit branch, located in the Claridge House Apartments building, is intended to showcase current work.
"It's a business decision in some way," says owner David Klein. "The audience downtown is not a Matisse audience. I think it's people want to see things that are made for them today, that have a resonance for them today."
As such, the Detroit location will feature additional metro Detroit-based artists, such as Mitch Cope, Carlos Diaz, and Susan Campbell. It will also afford Klein four times the amount of space he has in Birmingham.
Wasserman also says he was drawn to Detroit by the potential of a larger space. His new gallery will occupy a former firehouse in northern Eastern Market, which Wasserman describes as "a relatively unconventional art space," in what is sure to be one of the understatements in the year in the world of Detroit art. Part gallery and part concert hall, the space will also include permanent installations such as the "Cosmopolitan chicken project," which will show the work of a Belgian artist who has been cross-breeding chickens for 20 years to symbolize diversity. (We initially thought Wasserman was joking when he told us this. He is not.)
Does this pair of relocations mean anything? For longtime Detroit art critic Vince Carducci, it's a welcome change. "When I was writing for Artforum and Art in America, I'd be handing these stories in from Ferndale and Muskegon," he says. "They were always asking me, 'Where the heck are these places? Aren't there any galleries in Detroit?'"
Of course, by no means has Detroit been any sort of cultural wasteland. "It's always been there under the radar, and now because of the stuff happening in the 7.2, there's more comfort there," he says. "It's the age-old story. The people who have been here have taken the risks, and created enough of a critical mass that other people can now come in. Some people will bemoan that, and some people will celebrate it."
Could the city's comeback narrative be getting ahead of the economic reality? Carducci isn't worried. "Just like when anything, it will depend on the people at the center of it," he says. Plus, there's plenty of reason to be optimistic: "If they're serving free wine at the openings, let's go! What's not to like about that?"
The David Klein Gallery has an opening reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 17 at 1520 Washington Blvd., Detroit; 313-818-3216; dkgallery.com; no cover.
Wasserman Projects celebrates its grand opening from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 25 at 3434 Russell St., suite 502, Detroit; 313-818-3550; wassermanprojects.com; no cover.