Something exciting is happening in Detroit. Though it’s absolutely true that a stroll through Downtown or even some of the city’s more historic districts, like Corktown, can be eerily quiet, if not downright lonely, especially for New Yorkers used to loud, congested streets and packed subways or even Los Angelinos accustomed to sitting in traffic for hours at a time, when happening upon a member of Detroit’s tight-knit, enthusiastic art community, this specter of depression is lifted, however temporarily, and the internal space created by an otherwise hushed city is filled with a shared, unfettered optimism.
Samantha Banks Schefman, co-founder of the Detroit-based art collective PLAYGROUND DETROIT, much like her partner, Paulina Petkoski, is one of these aforementioned creative champions of a soulful, courageous city climbing ever so steadily back from the brink.
Schefman and Petkoski formed PLAYGROUND DETROIT (PD) in 2012 with the intention of creating a conduit through which artists in Detroit could exhibit and perform in the larger New York City market. The feed also flows the other way of course. For the last four years the duo has held various pop-up exhibitions, residencies and concerts in the two cities, primarily for emerging artists and performers, with the intent of providing increased exposure via a conscious, creative cross-pollination. Since its inception, PD has established valuable partnerships with Cranbook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, David Klein Gallery (one of Downtown Detroit’s few contemporary art galleries), and Détroit Is The New Black, a trendy fashion retail and gallery space, to name a few.
Though Schefman and Petkoski continue to enjoy the creativity and improvisation that goes into executing temporary pop-up activations and public art initiatives, they came to recognize the immense value and general necessity of securing a permanent, physical headquarters in the city they call home. The young entrepreneurs pooled their resources and decided to take the risk of securing a lease, starting this December, to an old but charming kitchen supply store at the edge of Detroit’s historic Eastern Market. They’re calling their new space “The Playground.”
“For us to have full control and consistency, a place where people can come visit us, a place where the community can talk to us and participate with us, is incredibly important,” says Schefman over the phone from inside a cab heading to a Britney Stoney concert at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn this past Sunday, which PD produced and promoted. “Eastern Market in Detroit is not as active as the Downtown area. It’s still coming up. We need more retail spaces, galleries, restaurants and venues there to make Detroit a true cosmopolitan city.”
Samantha not only keeps her heart in “The D,” she also keeps it in the family. Her mother, Christine Schefman, is the Director of Contemporary Art at the previously mentioned David Klein Gallery, located on Washington Boulevard. Her father, Robert Schefman, a talented figurative painter, shows frequently at the gallery. This has allowed Schefman to experience, first hand, both the creative and administrative sides of the art world. Though Sam is a consistent presence at Klein’s gallery, it’s clear that her efforts are better spent catering to the city’s younger generation of creatives.
It should be noted that the nearby and super-hip Library Street Collective has done wonders and perhaps even moved mountains for Detroit’s urban artistic core, as well as its blossoming Downtown nightlife scene. However, most of their participating artists could be considered “established,” having shown extensively in major galleries in New York as well as internationally. Evidence of this can be seen in Library Street’s latest exhibition, Personal Work, by Toronto-based painter and mixed media artist Thrush Holmes or the Brooklyn-based Swoon’s The Light After, which occupied the gallery in October and coincided with a series of commissioned street artworks across the city.
Not far from PD’s raw, developing space, stands Wasserman Projects, another indefinable venue in Eastern Market. Owned by Detroit native and prolific collector Gary Wasserman, the venue specializes in high-concept, experimental exhibitions intent on making a major, immediate, and lasting impact both locally and internationally. Wasserman Projects, much like the previously mentioned galleries, seems to have cornered a particularly niche market in Detroit’s art scene; that of a museum quality space interested in exhibits that might just be a little too quirky or high-concept for The DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts) in Midtown or even MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit), which runs a bit closer to Library Street’s aesthetic, but with admittedly more space. These venues all deserve attention and should be celebrated and positively patronized, but there is a clear spatial void for local, emerging talent in need of support.
“There’s still very few galleries and none of them work specifically with emerging artists and even fewer are opening up their doors to host public events,” claims Schefman. “PLAYGROUND DETROIT could help the city on the whole.”
Earlier this month, Schefman and Petkoski launched a Kickstarter campaign to help them, well, kick The Playground into full gear by providing the funds to renovate their new location and fuel their sure to be exciting programming for the next calendar year while simultaneously supporting a growing community of exciting young artists. These include Ouizi, who’s become well known for her large-scale floral murals that grace over 40 locations across Detroit. Marlo Broughton, another PD affiliate, is a skilled figurative painter and street artist who’s spent considerable time with orphaned youth in the Middle East as well as underprivileged children in Detroit, whose families have watched academic funding, let alone for the arts, all but vanish. Ellen Rutt, a Detroit-based multi-disciplinary artist who has provided installations for the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn and the WeWork in Chicago, is another great example. Schefman calls Rutt, “A brilliant designer and a great human being,” a recurring sentiment she attributes to the numerous creative friends who share her and Petkoski’s inclusive and ever-expanding sandbox.
“The rewards that we have on there [Kickstarter] are exactly what we offer on a regular basis,” notes Schefman, who stresses the fact that there are less than two weeks left to reach her goal of $75,000. “ You can buy artwork or a lesson or workshop by an artist. You can buy a full day of really intense studio visits or concert tickets to see local and national talent. You could sponsor an exhibition, a mural or a residency. There are some great gifts in there. By contributing, you’re essentially buying job opportunities for a diverse body of creatives.”
After this year’s election, it became abundantly clear that life exists outside our major coastal cities. What needs to be made even clearer is that culture also exists outside New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. Cities like Detroit could serve as valuable hubs to strengthen the larger, progressive, creative ideologies that serve to illuminate our shared humanity, and through art, more clearly and collectively reconstruct our conflicted national identity.
For PD, this means investing in the arts as, yes, a means of urban beautification while being weary of its role as a potential precursor for gentrification. This is done by shining a clear, concerted spotlight on local artists of color. More importantly, it’s about investing in the next generation as a whole; a generation that will inevitably be faced with the choice to either leave Detroit for presumed greener pastures or buckle down and contribute to the success of a city that must in turn prove that it considers its own youth valuable, especially its marginalized artists.
“If people don’t support the creatives in this city,” says Schefman, referring to Detroit, despite pausing a moment to keep it old school and pay her New York City yellow cab driver. “They’re going to lose all the color, imagination and vibrancy that we bring.”
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