We have to admit we were disappointed to hear that the current show at the University of Michigan’s Work • Detroit Gallery would be its last. Indeed, while the university will continue to house offices for its other schools in its Detroit Center on Woodward and Martin Luther King Jr., the decision was quietly made to discontinue the Stamps School of Art & Design’s presence, which has occupied the space since 2007. The current exhibition, Visualizing Data: The Art of Information, will run through April 25. After that, Stamps’ Detroit presence is a question mark — though the university insists it will continue in Detroit in some capacity.
“The dean [Gunalan Nadarajan] has made it very clear to make sure that it is going to remain,” says Stephen Schudlich, who has served as the gallery’s director since 2008. “To think that this is sort of a sign that U-M is pulling out as far the arts go — nothing could be further from the truth. We’re just shifting. I think more of what it is is a redefinition — just saying there’s a better way, a more appropriate way for the school to engage and collaborate as far as the creative process goes with the city of Detroit.”
Whether that means the gallery will relocate or utilize existing art spaces in Detroit is up in the air. Schudlich, though, admits there’s plenty of room for improvement as far as location goes. Despite the gallery’s primo real estate on Woodward between the Detroit Institute of Arts and the theater district, it felt like an outpost. “Unless you knew it was there, you didn’t know it was there,” Schudlich says. “We’ve always had that, when it comes to Art Detroit Now or the gallery crawl, it was the furthest-most point. It was difficult to network and tie it in with a lot of those other established locations.”
Sharing space with other U-M offices meant there were other logistical considerations as well. “[Work • Detroit] has always been sort of a space-within-a-space,” he says. “To have a sound component that would be playing in a gallery space right next door to somebody’s office who’s from, say, the School of Public Health — it could be distracting to them.”
Despite falling under the aegis of U-M, Work • Detroit was never solely a space for U-M students — often pulling in curators and contributors from all over. The space had a knack for creating a dialogue by featuring disparate artists who may have never exhibited together, united under an umbrella concept. “That’s always been the core foundation of those shows. They’ve never been intended to be one-dimensional,” Schudlich says. “There’s always been the awareness that there’s some cerebral thread that runs through this whole thing.”
In that way, Visualizing Data is an exemplary Work • Detroit show, and for that reason perhaps as fine a note as any to end on. To say it’s a show of manuals and charts and maps isn’t accurate, as the show features a variety of data presented in novel ways. What looks like a Modernist painting of a smaller white square within a larger black square, for example, is actually a stark presentation of U.S. incarceration demographics. Elsewhere, a meticulous, colorful chart turns out to be an elaborate visual representation of an episode of the podcast Radiolab.
“This exhibit shows a really diverse grouping of ways that that could be done,” Schudlich says. “It’s all rooted in that concept that this is data, this is information, as opposed to ‘This is a picture of a flower.’
“The gallery always had that mandate to allow for opportunities like that,” Schudlich says. “To take a proposal from a curator [...] and say, ‘We’re going to give you the room, we’re going to give you the lights, we’re going to give you the cheese, we’re going to make you the postcards. We have read the proposal, we like what you’re proposing, let’s make it happen.’ When that happens successfully, it’s a great thing.”
Visualizing Data: The Art of Information was curated by Jeanne Hunter-Moore and runs until April 25. See stamps.umich.edu/exhibitions/work_detroit for more information.