New arts complex aims to build community in Detroit

DETROIT – “If we knew how the world of galleries worked, I don’t know if we would have gone for it,” said JJ Curis, who, with her husband Anthony Curis, founded an art gallery, the Library Street Collective , in 2012, in a once abandoned alley. But she believes their naivety in this first venture may have allowed them to conduct future business with an unconventional mindset.

Now, in the hope of contributing to the artistic renaissance of the city, the Curises have purchased and restored the Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd and the Presbytery from 1912 and are self-financing the redevelopment of the surrounding structures and grounds into a new complex. cultural and artistic. Scheduled to open in the spring of 2023, The Shepherd, as it’s known now, is designed as a hybrid of a mall space, an institution, and a community center.

While the rapid redevelopment of downtown Detroit over the past decade has led to real estate speculation and the displacement of low-income residents and artists, “not all is negative gentrification,” Rochelle Riley said. , Director of Arts and Culture for the City of Detroit, who supported the project and helped guide the Curises through the complicated approval process.

First a young collector with experience in other fields – Anthony is from Detroit who worked in his family’s real estate development company and JJ is from Indianapolis with a background in public accountancy – the couple, both aged 40 and living in the suburb of Grosse Pointe, forged a dynamic program extending beyond the gallery’s white cube. They began by collaborating with artists such as Jammie Holmes, Nina Chanel Abney, and Sam Durant on public projects in buildings and sites across Detroit, still scarred by the riots of the late 1960s.

“From day one we were deeply interested in seeing how we could impact our community with the gallery,” said Anthony, sitting in the parsonage of the now empty Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Detroit’s East Village. , a small neighborhood about 15 minutes east. downtown.

The Romanesque-style red brick church is central to their master plan, which received final special zoning and land use approvals from the city earlier this month and letters of support from the East Village Association. , among other neighborhood organizations. It will include two new galleries, a public library and workshop space inside the church, designed by Brooklyn-based architectural firm Peterson Rich Office.

The Shepherd will open with a retrospective of Detroit artist and muralist Charles McGee, co-founder of the Detroit Institute of Contemporary Art. McGee, who died this year at the age of 96, is represented by several murals and sculptures around the town he loved and was a mentor to many local artists.

The Curises, which is hosting the McGee retrospective with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, is considering future exhibitions and performances scheduled by the Library Street Collective along with other galleries, nonprofits and collections. They also honor McGee with a permanent public garden of sculptures on the church grounds and oversee the making of three new sculptural groups based on motifs from his early mixed media wall reliefs. These include playful figures now scaled up to 14 feet tall; interlocking biomorphic shapes with black and white geometric patterns that serve as benches; and abstract scribbles transformed into hedge-shaped structures that children can zigzag between.

Charles McGee Legacy Park, which receives additional funding from Dan and Jennifer Gilbert in partnership with the neighborhood organization Jefferson East, Inc., will be a gift to the city of Detroit.

Riley, the arts administrator, said problems have arisen in the past when wealthy people come from the suburbs and take over a neighborhood without caring about who and what was there before. The Curises “understand the city in which they live, which is predominantly black, and are very aware of the heritage to be defended,” she said.

Riley said she hoped the Shepherd would “serve as a role model in creating an arts district and creating an arts district in a way that many people can be involved,” adding that she did not. heard no voices of opposition to their plan.

For Anthony Curis, whose father, Michael Curis, worked for decades in retail development in east Detroit and took him as a child to city and community council meetings, the launch of this project allowed him to come full circle.

“I understand the nerves people can have when development happens in the city and it’s not well thought out,” said Anthony.

The Curises have purchased a number of vacant properties near the church and are renovating them into affordable housing and artist studios, in what they see as protection against expensive condo development. They rented the first of these repaired homes to artists Paul Verdell and Jamea Richmond-Edwards for about 30% below the market rate.

As part of their community outreach, the Curises have partnered with Detroit native and arts educator Asmaa Walton, who formed the Black Art Library pop-up last year, with 500 publications on artists from color with a connection to Michigan. He has since toured in Detroit and Cleveland. Walton has signed up to host a mini-branch of his collection at The Shepherd, which will be called the East Village Arts Library.

“I want this to be a space where people who live around this campus can come in and learn something that interests them, or maybe didn’t know they were interested,” Walton said.

Another key partner of The Shepherd is Chicago-based artist McArthur Binion, who grew up in Detroit and remembers McGee as the first artist he ever met, aged 11. When the Library Street Collective produced a McGee exhibit in 2017, Binion came to his old friend’s opening and met the Curis. He appealed to them to find locations for his new foundation, which helps young artists of color in his hometown. When the couple showed him the parsonage of the church, Binion knew he had found his place.

“I saw right away that our long-term goals for Detroit could align,” said Binion, who has an office and apartment for the Modern Ancient Brown Foundation’s guest artist program on the top floor of the building. presbytery.

The rest of the presbytery will be transformed into guest rooms with six guest rooms, and an old garage at the back will become a café. The OSD design office will create a wide pedestrian walkway through the complex and a new sloping green

space out. Binion plans to collaborate with skateboarder Tony Hawk on the design of a permanent skate park on the boulder. “We have made the decision to keep the majority of the land within this project as public space,” said Anthony.

The sculpture park was the last project McGee, in his declining health, was able to work on. His daughter, Lyndsay McGee, said he saw it as a place of joy and play. “He liked the idea that children could interact with his work,” she said.

In her last days, she called on the Curises, who were the only gallery owners to represent her father during his long career, to come and say goodbye, warning that he would probably not recognize them. JJ described sitting at the artist’s bedside. “Out of nowhere,” she remembers, “he looks at Anthony and says: What material is the project made of? What material? “

McGee’s designs for the new sculptures will be made from stainless steel, fiberglass, aluminum and urethane to withstand the wear and tear of the public.

“To hear him say that it was so much pressure and at the same time motivation to get this project through,” said Anthony. “Everything for Charles was to bring people together and find common ground. He really saw it as an opportunity.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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