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OPINION: To be fair, Or not to be fair

Preface: Written by Samantha B Schefman. This article is the first installment of a series of personal reflections that have been culminating over the seven years since founding PLAYGROUND DETROIT in New York City.

Currently listening to: Maggie Rogers “Past Life”

Every time I’ve visited New York City since moving back to Detroit, I have somehow fit enough outfit changes into a carry-on sized piece of luggage that I could stay for a whole season. Each trip I pack as if I might suddenly have serious doubts about the potential and lifestyle of Detroit and fall back into the tides of New York, where the money flows like wine in the land of Dionysus.

Waiting for the plane to pull into the runway queue, I turn my phone off so that my train of thought isn’t interrupted. I’m using the list of what I want to see and do to try to schedule out my 5-day ‘work-cation’ during this year’s March “Art Week” in New York. It’s Tuesday morning: I’ve missed ADAA since they still haven’t gotten in sync with the rest of the art fair schedules; so I already start to convince myself that —on top of every booth, gallery, studio, relative, and friend I “must” see— I may have enough time to hit multiple museums throughout the week. Museums are a place of worship for me.

Historically I would say that art fairs are a place of anxiety- until I met Independent, that is. I had only attended for the first time in 2018 and mostly remember staring at the sunset over the Hudson River so I’m still not sure my opinion has actually been altered about the fairs [“a combination of commerce, parties, and culture that attendees love to pretend to hate;” best expressed in the first two paragraphs of James Tarmy’s 2018 piece for Bloomberg publication].

The plane picks up speed and I feel my stomach dropping low as if its having more trouble fighting the gravitational pull than the rest of my body while we climb into the clouds. To relieve my stomach ache a bit I tell myself, “it’s okay to skip Armory all together.” My general excuse is that it’s a pain to get to and my biggest complaint is that the set-up could not make the experience of art feel more commercialized. Trying to filter and/ or absorb all of the content through the rows and rows and rows left, right, front to back, is like trying to stop and study every tree, bush, and bug on a walk around the entirety of Central Park (if it were an actual forest)— and then trying to recall each species so you can look them up when you get home.

One of my main missions this Art Week isn’t actually a fair. It is to attend Red Bull Artslatest exhibition opening. They recently combined their New York and Detroit programming, which makes me feel like PLAYGROUND DETROIT has finally met its long-lost relative.

Seven years ago our company was founded in New York as a way to garner a direct audience and market for Detroit-based creatives through concerts, screenings, exhibitions, and digital content. On a whim of passion and fearlessness, my business partner and I had both moved back to Detroit by 2015 to open a brick-and-mortar that would be in physical proximity of the artists we work with. However, that isn’t— and never was— the be-all end goal. Like any market that values (inter)national recognition, having a presence in cities such as New York City (especially NYC) is critical.

At PLAYGROUND, we’ve always believed that there’s a particular semblance between Detroit and New York. Both cities wear a grit caked-on so heavily it refuses to be wiped entirely clean; and they’ve both birthed some of the coolest occasions of visual arts and music (and therefore, the best parties) of the past century. In those regards they seem like an obvious pair.

The flight in-between the two cites is so short that there is not even enough time to finish an in-flight movie. To some they may appear a more unlikely duo— like Toy Story’s Woody and Buzz Lightyear. One is shiny, new and cocky and the other is an old-school, thoughtful, and a family-first kind of guy; but they still find they have goals and passions in common. New York City may have more money- more of everything constantly- but I would vote that Detroit understands community in a better way. In the way that Bruce J Katz of The Metropolitan Revolution may say is essential for “economic competitiveness,” the proven theory that more successful business in the same industry within reach of each other means more information with which to mould a demanding market place. New York carries a catty competitive vibe responsive of its dog-eat-dog (-or-cat) world, whereas Detroiters tend to uplift and collaborate with one another.

The flight lands in JFK ahead of schedule. It takes me longer to get to the hotel on the Upper East Side than the whole duration of my flight so I miss the press and preview hours for Spring/ Break art fair. Christine Schefman, Contemporary Director of David Klein Gallery reports to me that It feels “like a grad show” (and is even dubbed an “Art Show” rather than “Fair” in its title) in its whimsy and eccentric way, but still respectable: the stamina and brain power it takes to enroll and then excel in an MFA environment is invigorating.

The Spring/Break booths are the most economical, free for artists and independent curators, (compared to the $40k entry level prices of standard art fairs*) so budgets can be focused on the production of a project and, in turn, pressure be applied primarily to concept. I attend much later in the week and am in no way disappointed. I’d consider participation for an emerging traditional gallery a valid option for off-the-wall special projects; even the best cleanly hung booth stood out like an underwhelming sore thumb.

*Costs after art handlers, shipping, the walls, the lights, the travel expenses etc.

My personal favorite in the fair, Leif Low-Beer at Spring/ Break, who included on his booth signage: “It was not regarded as a distinct category (despite mandatory (and compulsive) engagement).”

I asked Christine if she thought the art fair model on a grand scale was crumbling like Pier 92; “We still appreciate the opportunity to show in cities like NYC, Miami, and Chicago. It’s increased our business over the years. But there’s lot at stake. The big galleries dominate,” she explains. David Klein Gallery has attended for 10 years, however intuitively pulled out for 2019 and spent their efforts during the week instead researching.

Pier 92 has held the so-to-speak “Modern wing”* of The Armory Fair and had to relocate due to the unsound structure. Guests were given free access to shuttles between the main location (the “Contemporary wing”) and the substitute Modern collection location. *The foundation and the majority of the fair is dedicated to exhibiting work by living artists. Galleries that show works both of the 20th and 21st centuries are in their own section.

New Art Dealers Alliance also became dependent on a shuttle in 2019. In an effort to “to develop and deploy new initiatives that will best serve our members as their needs continue to shift and evolve,” said Heather Hubbs, Executive Director of NADA, the organization canceled their annual March fair. Ditching the booths for the streets with bus tours that bounce between local NADA-member galleries and the pop-ups located on Canal (just around the corner from Independent) granted to select international NADA members, as they went on to say:

“Producing alternative models for the public to engage with contemporary art has always been central to NADA’s mission, and the combination of NADA Miami and directing focus towards the galleries and their exhibition programs will make for a more dynamic season.”

I can certainly appreciate the sentiment, but in a city like New York where everyone is already used to getting toted around from site to site, made this model feel somewhat like a regular experience unfortunately, and the luster was lost.

After dropping off my bags at the hotel, I took a walk around the neighborhood. Running errands without a car feels so free and satisfying. I love that I can get exercise while checking off a to-do list. Multi-tasking is so important to New Yorkers that even the subway stations have Wifi now. I’m on the platform waiting for the Downtown F from the depths of 4 floors of staircases and/ or escalators (—take your pick—  and no, I’m not exaggerating. You could go to 63rd and Lex for your gluteus maximus work instead of bothering with a gym). I text artist and dear friend Liza Lacroix that I’m now on the train car. I attempt to catch up on the work I missed while traveling. I open an email at one stop, work on a reply, and have it ready to send by the next stop. I strain over the lost time that has been spent driving around metro Detroit each week until the stench of a homeless person who’s now in the same train car makes me strain my own breath. The tear trickling down my cheek from my stung, watering, eyes reminds me to appreciate the privacy and control of being my own driver.

Liza is waiting for me at Red Bull Arts and impossible to miss in a crowd. Her long stature always donning black head-to-toe makes the rest of her appear to glow; especially her bright copper hair and giant, glittering, blue eyes. Her oil paintings are almost an abstracted literal interpretation of her look: a majority of the canvas deep dark hues in browns and reds that could appear black from far away but always accompanied with delicate and surprising pops of a soft light blue and vibrant red that highlight the depths of the dark tones. She and I met in NYC while I managed Mike Weiss Gallery in 2014. That year was my version of grad school.

I became a sponge about the business of art, and Liza was a dedicated accompaniment in my studies as we bounced from art opening to the next. When I moved back to Detroit in 2015, she spent a month over the summer as artist-in-residence at Popp’s Packing and PLAYGROUND partnered to support her solo exhibition. She has often mentioned her desire to come to Detroit again which, to me, is a significant nod to our community, if you comparatively hear the definitiveness in her tone when she tells you that she never wants to live anywhere except New York.

The opening for the Gretchen Bender exhibition was packed, but it being the small world that it is, we immediately we run into a few past-life pals and a couple of my favorite friends/ creatives/ colleagues,* who have been working for Red Bull: Gabe Chess and Scott Vincent Campbell. They also have both spent time living in Detroit and in New York and regularly still work in or visit the latter. I’m constantly comparing notes on the two cities (especially in regards to working in the arts) with them both just to make sure my own feelings are still logical. *Footnote: AKA the holy trinity in the art industry.

The retrospective installations by Bender are timeless despite its 1980s TVs. She utilized new media to turn the media industry on itself for introspection and critique. I congratulate Chief Curator, Max Wolf. He and I found a rare bond years earlier upon meeting in Detroit because we were both literally born into the arts thanks to our parents’ lines of work. Unlike myself though, he stuck to the family path of working in the industry from the get-go and landed at Red Bull with the launch of their NYC “Studios” (now “Arts”) program five years ago.

Gabe introduces me to Bill Connors, Head of Brand Marketing in North America, to whom I don’t hesitate to admit that I’m geeked by their level of appreciation for Detroit. Their patience and intrigue as I rant a little surprises me so I hold them long enough to prove my intelligence and wit (more so to myself) but not so long that I sound like a sales person. I may have drank the Red Bull “Kool-aid” (in the 70s-cult sense) and it’s made me wired as a cheerleader that their presence in Detroit keeps growing. The direct connection to New York creates a proper passageway for the artists they support to enter the centerfold of the market without uprooting and moving the pages on which they’ve written their stories.

“Detroit and New York have diverse, rich histories blanketed in artistic creativity. We believe that connecting these two spaces will help facilitate consistent cultural exchange between the cities and their practitioners. At the end of the day, we aim to provide artists new opportunities for growth and understanding in their cities and beyond. This mergence furthers that mission.” -Max Wolf, Red Bull Arts New York

After years of success with their visual artist residency program in Eastern Market, Red Bull’s decision to sponsor and curate an annual stage at Detroit’s electronic music festival Movement, came of little surprise. The project grew into full fruition with the opening of Red Bull Music Academy’s radio station on Detroit’s Broadway Street. The sound studio has since welcomed top international and local artists, and features a techno-focused archival exhibition in its entry.* Ten years ago, when it felt like the Wild West downtown, I couldn’t have imagined such a massive brand investing so much time and energy on Detroit— in fact, just above their location on Broadway there was an after-hours party spot you could watch the tumbleweeds roll down the main city drag as you danced until dawn.

* A few weeks after I returned to Detroit again, I learned that the Red Bull Music Academy is dismantling and will likely leave Red Bull Arts to hold it down in Detroit.

I’ve stayed until the end of the night’s preview hours chatting with Communications Manager, Kim Robinson Jr. The free-flowing Red Bull infused drinks at the bar are no longer and the old friends of mine are luring me to The Jane Hotel for an art publication’s party. On my way out Kim mentions that (with a stroke of genius) Red Bull also promoted the show through the fair grounds. In a small glass room overlooking one of the floors of Independent, they were dubbed the “Special Project” with a small four-screen display of Bender’s videos that can hardly do justice to the massive and enthralling piece installed at their headquarters on 18th street; but it is certainly alluring.

Gretchen Bender, Total Recall, 1987 installed as a part of So Much Deathless, Red Bull Arts New York.

What I later discovered on my own (and probably could have read in an email blast that I may have received, but never opened) is that Independent was not only in support of Red Bull’s work, but also found themselves in alignment:

“In honor of our respective anniversaries (10th for Independent, 5th for Red Bull Arts), we’ve teamed up with Red Bull Arts to create a visual diary of the art world that assesses the forces shaping the cultural landscape of today by asking the questions of tomorrow. This collaborative, month-long editorial series will be organized into four distinct themes: New Ideas, New Politics, New Spaces, and New Media.”

They are all worth reading, but featured in Art Voices: New Spaces is Detroit’s own Reyes | Finn, who put into perspective their role of being “New” in a small city wherein it makes an impact:

“Being in Detroit we are part of an established arts community—one that existed long before our arrival. Our aim is to put our 20 years of cumulative experience to use here and help support Detroit’s art community. We are working to develop our relationships with artists working here, in the Detroit area. We are also working to bring artists with strong practice to the gallery to give our audience an opportunity to see artwork by artists who otherwise may not show in the Detroit area. Stepping into your local gallery is one way of supporting your own arts community, especially if you take the time to get to know the artists and dealers in your area.”

Independent’s grand reveal is the latest of the week landing on Thursday. Two of the three stories of the 50 Varick building have giant paned glass windows for walls, overlooking the Hudson River. The booth walls on these floors are spread out, making it feel like a mini Whitney Museum. Thanks to the windows, the natural lighting is incredible. Thanks to the small number of galleries participating (110 galleries at Armory vs. 66 galleries at Independent) each piece of work can breathe. I like to start on the top floor and make my way down. The windows and booths get smaller and tighter from one floor as you descend to the next.

The quickly rising Reyes | Finn is exhibiting James Benjamin Franklin, Maya Stovall, and Nikita Gale on the first floor. In this most petite part of the fair, there is less room for definitive barriers between galleries. It’s not the dream location but they are there— in a most appealing fair where so many galleries, artists, and collectors want to be— and presenting work by Detroit-based artists. MOCAD Director Elysia Borowy-Reeder’s eyes grew wide as she grinned and nodded her head in agreement over the museum-quality feel of Independent when we later reminisced and compared our experiences. Her husband, artist Scott Reeder, displayed his ceramic work with CANADA Gallery on the higher floor just yards from the walls of windows and picturesque view.

Reyes | Finn at Independent. Image courtesy Artsy and the gallery.
Reyes | Finn at Independent. Image courtesy Artsy and the gallery.

I make it to the city’s modern gem of picturesque and pictures, the Whitney Museum, on Friday afternoon. My mom* and I are there to see Kevin Beasley’s exhibition, A view of a landscape, that literally and figuratively resonates and reverbs. Again, the world proves itself small as I realize that from the sea of strangers the pretty blonde emerging toward me is Cranbrook’s Contemporary Curator of Art and Design, Laura Mott.

Kevin Beasley, A Cotton Gin Motor, 2012-18

On the same wavelength, we dive with introspection into Beasley’s painterly walls of multimedia sculpture. It’s the mic’d-up cotton-gin that steals the show and writes its soundtrack. I can’t help but think— especially with him being CCS alumni— how this may be even more powerful for Detroit’s audience. The exhibit’s concept is rooted in the South but so is so much of Detroit’s culture— especially in its practice of faith and its historical dedication to sound. Kevin and I had received our BFAs from CCS around the same time, which I bring up to him years later while in his installation at Interstate Projects, Brooklyn. By then (2014) his CV was already frame-worthy and he made it clear that Detroit was a blip to him. I wonder now if he would have any faith in us as a potential hotbed for young artists. *AKA Christine Schefman, but here— where we are greeted by one if my parents long-time friends who has forever worked in the Whitney’s film department— I am most clearly an apple that has not fallen far from the tree.

Kevin Beasley, The Acquisition, 2018
Kevin Beasley, A view of a landscape, 2019

Liza and I link up again that evening. She had spent the day looking at apartments. A favorite was on Mulberry Street.

“Oh, my mom’s old stomping grounds,” I tell her. “Was the tub in the kitchen?”

“No. The shower was,” she replied.

When she informed me that the asking rent was about the same as what high-end new construction two-bedroom apartments go for in Detroit,* I couldn’t help but compare lifestyles. Liza’s studio is in Bushwick, so she would spend up to an hour commuting from the city to get there. Now that the L train is under construction, getting back and forth from Manhattan to Brooklyn is especially painful. I spent every day of one year making an hour commute from Bushwick to Chelsea by bike or bus, then train, and finally foot. If you can get a seat during the train ride its a great time to catch up on reading; if not, feeling like a sardine could really dampen a mood.

When asked why I moved back from NYC to Detroit, one of my more general replies is that I eventually became disenchanted. I rekindled that enchantment with a home when I moved into True North. The natural lighting in my open-concept, lofted quonset hut that dependably pours in (no matter what the weather) recharges my internal battery. To reflect on Philip Kafka and his projects in brief: I’m constantly inspired. He also moved to Detroit from New York to build something so unique that it would act as a magnet to determined creatives. His experiment worked and it all costs me half of what Liza is willing to pay just to be in Manhattan (and not including what she’s paying to also be in Brooklyn). *Sidenote: I am also a Real Estate agent.

Alongside some of our favorite lady friends (who work in Fashion: the other elite art industry of New York) we head to the Soho House for a concert. I am a committee member for the Cities Without Houses Detroit, which means that I can propose programming or member suggestions because (in short) I care enough about what they’re building. I feel most stimulated by their founding location in the Meatpacking District during the day when the seats in the dining rooms are all filled with beautiful casually-cool dressed people working at their laptops. Unlike Detroit, it seems this type of appearance is a clear requirement to work anywhere interesting in New York.

For example: everyone I’ve met through Red Bull has been rather attractive and particularly stylish no matter whether they have a creative position. I hope that this trend is included in the cultural exchange with Detroit inevitably taking place. Socializing is an integral part of creative businesses and Soho House’s arrival in Detroit is like a motion of support in the theory that our small art market could soon find itself booming.

*Footnote: This sounds corny but I swear I’ve watched people’s exteriors evolve because of this type of spirit. When I met Samantha Urbani she was kind of plain after she got off stage with her band, Friends, at DIY venue Glasslands. Soon they were touring the world and she started dating Dev Hynes (you’ve very likely heard their collaborative hit song, “You’re Not Good Enough”). She made such an earnest, public, and expressive effort to be the nicest person she could to everyone. I swear I watched her face transform into something ethereal over the years. And I dated her bandmate so I know from insider sources that it wasn’t their checks buying her beauty.

The concert in Soho House’s Vinyl Room was so good I got distracted. The clock suddenly struck ten, and Cinderella’s subway ride on the L line to Brooklyn shut down for the night. I had checked out of the hotel to stay in Williamsburg near the majority of my friends so we jumped in a cab to head back. The driver took us all the way along the bottom of Manhattan’s boot from the West Side Highway to the FDR Drive to get to the bridge; which meant circling the Financial District. Its seemingly endless development has turned this district into a case of trophies fighting over the award for Shiniest, Tallest, Newest, and Most Expensive building in the sky.

On my way to the airport in the morning I came down with my final case of traffic-induced car sickness for the week. I also came down with my first-ever home-sickness for Detroit. It took me four years to kick my habit of being a moth to the Statue of Liberty’s flame.

Instead there’s a fire under my ass to work harder alongside peers and leaders in making Detroit feel like the Shiniest, Newest, Most Beautiful, Badass city in all the land.

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