NYFA in Detroit

NYFA in Detroit

“I don’t know what I was expecting from our first exhibit in Detroit, but chickens were not the first thing that came to mind.”

On Friday, October 21, 2016, NYFA Board members, patrons, and staff ventured to Detroit, Michigan, which is home to one of the fastest growing, most vibrant art scenes in the country. Here, Ellen Claycomb, Senior Officer, Special Events & Individual Giving at NYFA, recounts their journey.

The first stop on our tour was Wasserman Projects. We were led through the exhibit by Gallery Assistant, Megan Keeley. I don’t know what I was expecting from our first exhibit in Detroit, but chickens were not the first thing that came to mind. I can only assume that is because I had not yet been introduced to the world of Koen Vanmechelen. He’s a Belgian multi- and transdisciplinary contemporary artist exhibiting “The Cosmopolitan Chicken Research Project.” It’s an installation that’s about art as a hybrid.


There were real chickens in this exhibit. Not these guys, though.

This stop was followed by a reception hosted by David Klein Gallery for NYFA where we mixed and mingled with some of the most established as well as emerging members of Detroit’s art scene. David Klein and Christine Schefman gave us the nicest welcome imaginable. It was an incredible way to kick off this trip!

Our Saturday itinerary was created in partnership with Playground Detroit. Founders Samantha Schefman and Paulina Petkoski led us through an enlightening and in-depth exploration of the Detroit art scene.

The first stop of the day was at the famed Heidelberg Project, where we had the opportunity to chat with founder Tyree Guyton, who shared his vision for transforming it from its current state into “version 3.0.” If you mention art in Detroit, someone will undoubtedly and deservedly mention the Heidelberg Project. It’s truly iconic. Personally, I would have been perfectly happy to spend the rest of the day chatting with Tyree. As one tour patron noted, “if this was the only thing I saw today, then this trip would have been worth it!” I agree, but luckily we did still have plenty in store.


One building in the famed Heidelberg Project as it currently exists.

At the Fringe Society, we encountered a variety of Detroit-made scarves and knits of all types. (Do you know the difference between a woven and a knit fabric? Because we do now!)

We then went on to MOCAD where we enjoyed seeing our first NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow of the trip, Sanford Biggers.


Nope, that’s not your imagination. That is, indeed, a giant, Fat Albert doll as part of his impressive installation, “Subjective Cosmology.”

We first got the opportunity to chat with MOCAD artist Matthew Angelo Harrison as his 3-D printer was making a piece right before our eyes! Matthew is a recent graduate who also works as an artist for Ford Motor Company making models for them. Also on display at MOCAD was Mike Kelley’s “Mobile Homestead: It’s Your Party” which is a glimpse of the artist’s incredibly impressive collection of political memorabilia. Ever wanted to see a six pack of “Billy Beer,” the infamous beer made my President Carter’s brother, Billy? If so, you’re in luck if you visit MOCAD.

After lunch, we changed things up a bit and explored the music scene in Detroit by visiting Assemble Sound. Assemble Sound is a coalition of artists in Detroit looking to work together to make Detroit’s music scene stronger together. It is also housed in an abandoned church. Definitely a unique stop. Some members of our party even went back later that night to witness an album release party that was supposedly amazing.

Ponyride is such a specific entity that helps so many. I’ll let them explain: 

“Ponyride is a study to see how the foreclosure crisis can have a positive impact on our communities. Using an ‘all boats rise with the tide’ rent subsidy, we are able to provide inexpensive space for socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs to work and share knowledge, resources and networks. We purchased a 30,000 square-foot warehouse for $100,000 and offer space for $0.50 per square-foot, which includes the cost of utilities. We have over 30 organizations in the space, in addition to individuals and businesses utilizing the co-working space. Ponyride nurtures collaboration and ideas to cultivate opportunities created by the strengths and crises of Detroit. Participants serve Detroit communities by sharing their craft and expertise.” 

It was fantastic to be there and talking to so many people, including the resident artists, who work at Ponyride.


Detroit Is The New Black is one of many companies housed in Ponyride.

Lisa Spindler Studio has an amount of space that New Yorkers can only dream about. It’s huge. Lisa is currently the only resident in an otherwise empty warehouse and she has an entire, massive floor to herself.


This is just one corner of Lisa’s studio displaying her wonderful work, if that gives you any sort of idea of how giant and lovely it was.

Next up was the home studio of filmmaker, artist, and teacher, Nic Notion. It was one of a few places we visited where the artists both lived and worked in their home studios. Nic has lived in Detroit forever (and in his current home for 11 years). He talked to us about the politics of “New Detroit” versus “Old Detroit,” a topic that came up several times throughout our trip. 

Our next stop was just around the corner at Joseph Konert’s Studio. Joseph was a very open artist who wanted us to explore his art ourselves, even going so far as to have a member of our party spray paint for herself. It was a fun space with a very interesting guy.


Joseph Konert letting NYFA literally leave a mark in his studio.

Fortress Studio was another artist residency dedicated to providing low-cost living and studio facilities for emerging and established artists. It was founded by Steven Kuypers and Steven McShane.

Next up were Ellen Rutt / Patrick Ethen / Thing Thing Studio. While they all share a studio space, the three artists do vastly different types of work. Ellen works in modern paintings. Patrick does incredible light installation and Thing Thing, well, they melt plastic and turn it into art. They use materials and methods from industrial production. (We saw the beginnings of a work that had partially been made with deconstructed Tide bottles.)


Ellen Rutt’s work in her shared studio.

Our final stop of the day was a Studio Visit with Scott Vincent Campbell, who is an incredible visual artist and curator, and Hannah Chalew.


The members of the party who were not afraid of heights were encouraged by Hannah to climb to the top and see what you could experience there.

After we said goodbye to our friends at Playground Detroit, we ventured out on our own on Sunday. We did a quick trip Sunday morning to the Detroit Institute of Arts. There we had a delightful tour led by docent, Judy Garvey, who kept saying, “Oh! It’s so nice to lead a tour with people who know contemporary art.” 

I didn’t tell her we were only slightly cheating by knowing a lot about Swoon (Fellow in Architecture/Environmental Structures/Design ‘13), Fred Wilson (Fellow in Sculpture in ‘87, ‘91), and Sanford Biggers (Fellow in Performance Art/Multidisciplinary Work ‘05) who was featured in a photograph there, because they are all NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellows. Also of note in DIA were the incredible “Detroit Industry Murals” by Diego Rivera.


One of our first stops of the morning was by this incredible Mickalene Thomas piece, Something You Can Feel.

The final stop of our tour was LSC Gallery Detroit to see even more work by NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow, Swoon.

It was a great trip and enjoyed by all. We hope that you’ll be able to join us on our next visit.

– Ellen Claycomb, Senior Officer, Special Events & Individual Giving

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Images: photo credit by Ellen Claycomb

Amy Aronoff
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