In 2014, when the City of Detroit threatened to sell many of the Detroit Institute of Art’s prized artworks to help the Motor City exit bankruptcy, the question of art’s role in the city’s future came front and center. Ultimately, the museum raised nearly a billion dollars to preserve the city’s cultural heritage—and its Picassos. Two years before, in what has become known as a “grand bargain,” local residents, husband and wife duo Anthony and JJ Curis, decided to open the Library Street Collective on a once-barren stretch of land. The Collective is a gallery with a traditional artist roster and a mission to revitalize the city by commissioning artists from the city and around the world to make public art in the streets of Detroit.
“Me or JJ don’t have an art background,” says Anthony Curis. “At the time, I was redeveloping a building in downtown Detroit that was meant to be a restaurant.” Back then, downtown Detroit’s state of near-total abandonment led him to open a gallery instead, at the suggestion of his wife. “The model wasn’t focused as much on the brick and mortar as it was on what kind of change we can make in the city.” He explains, “When we opened the gallery, we were really focused on public art and how could we change the landscape, making the community a little bit more vibrant and interesting. We are very interested in and keen on our mission to engage the public and reach people. That’s where the gallery was born.”
Since 2012, the Library Street Collective has partnered with the city’s museums and real estate companies to bring permanent and temporary art installations and murals to the downtown and wider Detroit area. All of the Collective’s exhibitions aim to encourage the artists they work with to think outside of the box and figure out a way they can engage Detroit publicly and at the community level. For a 2016 show with the artist Swoon, Library Street Collective partnered with the Detroit Institute of Arts with what Curis calls an “inside-outside approach” that brought the artist’s Thalassa installation to the main entrance of the museum and a mural to the Jefferson-Chalmers community. There, Swoon worked with local activist and artist Baba Wayne to create a mural. The hope was that, if the community and museum’s audiences, which aren’t always the same, saw one of the works, they would be compelled to visit both. For the collective’s current exhibition, The Size of the Fight, a solo showing of FAILE’s art, Library Street Collective helped the Brooklyn-based artists mount five large-scale works in a transformed alleyway known locally as “The Belt.”
Library Street Collective also did a similar project with the iconic Detroit artist Charles McGee. McGee, whose works belong to museum collections nationally and who currently has a work on display in the DIA’s African-American galleries, created a 150′ black-and-white mural on a wall in Capital Park, aptly titled, Unity. To commemorate the public work, the collective staged Still Searching, a monographic look at five decades of McGee’s art. The idea was to “experience the public mural but also a big breath of Charles,” says Curis. “I’ve never seen so many people so happy and excited to be around his work before, it was incredible to sit back and watch the faces of people as they walked in.”
The gallery’s non-traditional partnerships, which blur long-established art world norms that keep market-driven galleries and museum businesses separate—at least on the surface—have also allowed public life in Detroit to benefit in other ways, too. The Curises recently turned their 1960s William Kessler designed modernist home, known as the Hawkins Ferry House, into a gallery space for Unobstructed Views, an auction exhibition to benefit Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. The collective also commissioned more than 27 artists from the city and all across the world to paint massive murals in what once was an alleyway that led to a 10-story garage right behind the gallery. The project has made the area “one of the highest walkability areas of the entire city of Detroit,” according to Curis, and features works by artists Nina Chanel Abney, Shepard Fairey and local artist Tiff Massey.
“We wanted to keep people engaged,” says Curis of the project, “and wanted to figure out a way to have people come [ to the area] for not just the visual arts but music, culinary, and performance, too.” The collective has also been instrumental in initiating the dialogue between pro-skater Tony Hawk, who has a home in Detroit, and artist Ryan McGinness, who will open an exhibition at Cranbrook Museum this fall. It led them design Wayfinding, a free, temporary skate park in the city, due to open in the coming weeks.
When we first started and opened the gallery, a lot of the artists we worked with happened to be from outside of Detroit,” says Curis. “Our goal moving forward is to continue to celebrate and embrace artists from all over the world, but to really make a bigger impact on Detroit by focusing on a lot of the artists who are right here in Detroit.”
“There are a number of amazing artists here that we really want to involve and support,” he adds. “We want to help develop not just an art scene, but art careers locally.”