Expert Eye

Todd Levin on the Past, and Future, of Detroit's Art Scene

Todd Levin on the Past, and Future, of Detroit's Art Scene
Art advisor and curator Todd Levin

As the art world has experienced a tremendous boom over the past decade-plus, the heightening competition in art centers like New York and London have combind with skyrocketing rents to create a kind of centrifugal pressure, leading artists to search out viable perches on the periphery (Berlin, say, or Hudson). One of the unlikelier of such refuges to capture the imagination of these creative pilgrims has been Detroit—a city with a vibrant artistic history of its own that was largely derailed by the collapse of the auto industry and rampant mismanagement by the city's stewards. This summer, an ambitious group show, spread across Marianne Boesky Gallery and Marlborough Chelsea, has risen up to provide a fascinating bridge between the Detroit art scene's past and present, displaying a wealth of artworks and artifacts from the past two centuries.

The show has an unusually qualified curator to tell the story of Motor City's art history: Todd Levin, the prominent art advisor, who grew up in Detroit toward the end of its fertile run and experienced its decay into a city now known for the aesthetic of "ruin porn." To undertand the ideas contained within the show, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Levin about his curatorial approach, his views on the viability of Detroit's current art scene, and why the debate over the threatened pillaging of the Detroit Institute of Art's collection to pay down city debt misses the point. 

Your exhibition contains more than a hundred artworks by some 70 artists stretched over two centuries of history. That's a lot to squeeze into five shows, let alone one two-gallery show. What stirred you to take on this epic curatorial project, to tell the story of your home city through art?

I think people have been aware to a greater or lesser degree of the ongoing bankruptcy situation in Detroit, and possible ramifications concerning The Detroit Institute of Arts Museum. Since I had previously engaged this subject in the press and on television in order to protect and preserve art works in the collection of the DIA, I began to think about the possibility of an exhibition a year or so ago. I floated the idea to Marianne Boesky, who I curated exhibitions for in the past, because I knew her family came from Detroit and she seemed open to the idea. 

Then a few months later I happened to be speaking with Max Levai of Marlborough Chelsea, and he seemed interested in the idea too, but I explained to Max that I had already discussed the project with Marianne. Max’s response was, “Would it be okay if we did a two gallery show?” And I said, “Well, why don't you go make an appointment to speak with Marianne and discuss it with her and see how it goes.” They evidently had a very nice meeting where they hit it off and decided to share the exhibition. 

The exhibition design is striking, to say the least. Each gallery opens with a nearly identical darkened room, lit by a solitary dangling bulbs, with an object on a plinth and two historical artworksa painting and a photonestled in a corner. Then, behind a curtain, the rest of the show is displayed in a fairly raw, industrial setting, with works hung on bare drywall and the like. Can you talk a bit about your thinking behind the exhibition design?

When I began to think from a technical perspective about how I would distribute the hundred or so artworks gathered together for the exhibition, I noticed that both of the galleries are basically laid out in the same architectural way—they both have a smaller front gallery that one enters first, and then a larger main gallery following that. In the Marlborough space, there is also one more smaller viewing room after the large main gallery at the very end. 

Detroit is estimated by some accounts to be 40 percent vacant, and I wanted to translate that into a phenomenological experience for people who visited the exhibition. I realized that those two smaller front galleries represented about 40 percent of the square footage of the total exhibition space. By emptying the smaller front galleries out, when people first enter the exhibition at either venue, the space feels quite vacant, which is a bit of a surprise considering that the exhibition is about Detroit—a sprawling, urban environment. After passing through these vacant smaller front galleries, one passes into the larger main gallery spaces, which are much denser and crowded with artworks and information. When one leaves either gallery, one must pass through the mostly empty front galleries again, reinforcing the idea of the vacancy within the city itself.

Then, inside the main gallerieswhich have a DIY feel, with exposed drywallyou use partitions in an interesting way to contextualize the art. Can you talk about that a little?

To emphasize the overall symmetricality of the exhibition, each of the larger main gallery spaces has a freestanding wall placed in the middle that acts as divider, and on either side of that freestanding wall art works are installed that further relate to each other in a symmetrical manner. In Marianne Boesky Gallery, there is a Mike Kelley multi-panel painting on one side of the freestanding wall, and on the opposite side five objects from different eras and in different mediums are installed in precisely the same layout as the Mike Kelley. 

In the case of Marlborough Chelsea, one sees a 1907 painting by Percy Ives of the founders of The Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, and on the opposite side of the freestanding wall are the new founders of art in Detroit, Destroy All Monsters, the band made up of Mike Kelley, Niagara, Jim Shaw, and Cary Loren. Both of those images look like boardroom portraits, except one was painted to represent a 19th-century boardroom, and the other is set in a 20th-century boardroom—the West Court of the Westland Center Shopping Mall, in Mike's hometown suburb. 

As for the DIY quality of the display you refer to, I didn't want the primary gallery spaces to become too refined or precious. I didn't want to over-sensationalize the artwork itself, and also I felt that the rough or unfinished materiality reflected a better sense of the city itself.  

Set on this exhibition armature, you have included work by famous Detroiters like Mike Kelley together with rising artists from the city like Scott Reeder, Liz Cohen, Jay Heikes, Graem Whyte, and Richard Ritter, who has a splendid glass sculpture. You also have historic portraits of city industrialists, car ads, a dress by designer Anna Sui, and even a bike by the manufactures who recently resuscitated the Shinola brand. It's a wealth of fascinating information, visual and otherwise. What is the story you're telling here?

I’m not going to be able to contain a complete historic overview of artistic practice of any city in two Chelsea galleries, particularly with a 200-year time frame. That’s neither a remote reality, nor was it my intent. The intent for this exhibition was my motivation that it was necessary to do something for my hometown. As I wrote in the press release, I think of the overall concept of this exhibition as a tone poem for a city—a soliloquy of somebody returning home and realizing things aren’t the way they were when they left. This exhibition reflects a very personal engagement and experience. I’m sure somebody else would do an exhibition that would be just as specific but very different, depending on their point of view. I’m not attempting to offer a completist view of the city or to lead people down a particular rhetorical path. All I’m trying to do is lay out my own personal vision of how I’ve experienced the city in terms of artistic practice, and leave room for people like you to come to the exhibition, engage the works, and draw your own conclusions. 

You've put together a string of shows at Boesky over the past few summers, and also a scattering of smaller shows like one at Storefront Bushwick last summer. Often, these shows are characterized by deep cutsilluminating works by unfamiliar, overlooked, or forgotten artists and unfamiliar works by well known artists. How would you describe your curatorial process and approach?

Every exhibition concept and installation is different. This specific exhibition is highly unusual in that it’s the first I’ve curated where I worked with institutions, and there are many institutions that participated in this exhibition—The Detroit Institute of Arts, the Henry Ford Museum, the Detroit Historical Society, the New-York Historical Society, the Mike Kelley Foundation, the Pewabic Society, Wayne State University, the Cranbrook Museum of Art, and others. That’s a lot of institutions to engage with, and there are limitations because each institution is going to have specificities as to what can be borrowed, how it must be transported, how it can be installed, and many other details that are boring but still cast a long shadow in terms of dictating what can or can’t be in the exhibition. It’s not like I could dance through a meadow of wild flowers, simply picking all the art works that I wanted. There were a lot of hard decisions made, and small battles fought along the way in order to get to this end result. And I say that with tremendous gratitude to all concerned. I don’t think this exhibition would be as interesting if any of these institutions had decided not share their holdings and expertise with me. 

My process was to put together a list of my preferred choices from each institution and then see what they were willing to offer. To a certain extent I seem to always work from the opposite methodology that I imagine most university-trained curators do, because I haven’t studied curatorial arts and that's not my background. Most professional curators seem to start from a narrow or specific point that they are trying to illuminate, and then gradually proceed outwards from that point to slot in artworks that will help articulate their exhibition vision.I proceed in the opposite manner by initially casting a very wide net to see how many individually interesting artworks I can capture, and then only once all those works are finally assembled together in the gallery, I decide how the exhibition will arrange itself. It's admittedly a backwards approach, but for me it is the most comfortable, and I just trust the process and trust that the end result will work out. 

Now to segue into your own engagement with Detroit, how does your curatorial process mesh with your advisory work? Are there similar kinds of muscles that youre using in both? Or how do you see them complementing each other?

It would be foolish to declare that a ‘Chinese wall’ exists between my public curatorial exhibitions and my private advisory work, because at the end of the day I’m the same person, so of course there's going to be some kind of relationship. But I can draw a clear line between the advisory work I do for private clients and the curatorial work I do for public gallery exhibitions such as this. 

Publicly curated gallery exhibitions such as “Another Look At Detroit (Part 1 and 2)” have no transactional component. When I curate a public exhibition, I’m trying to make it as lively an experience as I possibly can. I understand that public galleries are primarily transactional, since they're for-profit entities, but I’m sure if you talk to any of the galleries that I’ve curated for, whether it's Marianne Boesky or Marlborough or Curator's Office in Washington, D.C., or Sprüth Magers in Berlin and London, any or all of them will probably shake their heads and say, “Yes, we like working with Todd, but from a transactional perspective his curated exhibitions may not be the most financially redeeming.” 

Galleries are already well aware of this issue, so that when we discuss a curated exhibition I may do for their space, there are no surprises. There are other people who curate exhibitions in auction-house spaces or in galleries where the primary modality of the exhibition is purely transactional from the outset, with the pieces chosen specifically with their transactional goal at the forefront and with everything else following from there. My publicly curated exhibitions don’t operate that way, for the most part. 

My private advisory side of the equation has a stronger transactional modality, no doubt about it. When a collector is spending seven or eight (or nine) figures on an artwork, I fully understand their concern about the transactional issues involved. But in my role as an art advisor, I tend to emphasize the educational modality, and the reason for that is if a client I’m privileged to advise is standing in front of an artwork that they are considering for purchase, they feel most comfortable making that purchase when they are confident about their knowledge of that artwork. And they are going to feel most confident about their knowledge of that art work when they are educated.

So if I have a client who is educated, who understands and appreciates what they are looking at, who I can have an intelligent, informed discussion with—then they will be more comfortable purchasing that artwork they are standing in front of because they are confident, and that confidence inevitably leads to more transactions. That client will not feel like there's any arm-twisting involved, or feel nervous because there’s a lot of money involved and they’re not sure about what they’re looking at. 

Both my public gallery exhibitions and my private advisory practice emphasize my belief that my primary job description is an educational modality as opposed to a transactional modality. 

You work with an extraordinary range of collectors, including some of the most engaged and important collectors in the world today. I wonder, have you ever worked with any collectors in Detroit, or in the Detroit region, considering thats your hometown? 

I have not. 

That functions as a good segue. In your statement for the show, you mention how the blight and tragedy surrounding Detroit has made it "hip," and that's certainly true for the art community. Matthew Barney filmed a large section of "River of Fundament" in the city, famous artists like Hernan Bas have set up shop in the city, and people like Mitch Cope and the allure of the $500 house have attracted all manner of young artists to Detroit to try go carve out sustainable perches amid the ruins there. How sustainable is the local art scene though? Is it really a viable place for artists to live, make, and show work? 

I think that’s a really good question. If we were speaking about this a couple of decades ago, I would be probably be more negative, but it seems these days with social media that there are artists from Detroit, far-flung places all over the United States, and for that matter all over the world, who seem to have an increasingly easier time getting their art practice out there for others to see on the Internet. Having said that, this phenomenon has also allowed for a much larger number of people to get involved, which breeds stronger competition. Greater numbers are going to do that—it’s a very Darwinian supply/demand equation.  Also, when there's so much more information clogging the pipeline and coming at one with such frequency, collectors tend to be easily confused and reach a state of ADD exhaustion. That’s the downside to the recent social-media experience. 

As for how artists are threaded into society in Detroit, let me put it this way: we have to ask ourselves what perpetuates creativity, and the bottom line is that it’s in the influx of The New. Creativity is fundamentally about generating new ideas and new forms, and the art world is simply the apparatus through which the artist is threaded into society. I think it’s important to grasp the idea that there are going to be certain places and certain galleries and certain people who act as good connectors for artists, to thread them into a society in a more efficient way, and other situations where this is less likely to happen. There’s a far greater likelihood for that to happen in places like New York or Los Angeles, where there's a greater concentration of collectors and a broader network of museums, curators, critics, and other artists. 

This was certainly apparent in New York City in the 1980s, when rent became so depressed-much like in Detroit now due to rapid de-industrialization of the city—that artists could get studios in the East Village and live there at the same time crowded in with curators, gallerists, writers, and critics all jumbled together in the same spaces. And all these people involved in various facets of the art world could ply their trades and make enough money doing what they did without in most cases having to work a second job, as long as they lived frugally—and that allowed for a massive cultural flourishing. It also happened in literature and in music—it was an across-the-board moment when our culture shifted from modernism to post-modernism. 

So what Detroit would really require is not only for artists to move there, but also a condensation of artists, critics, curators, writers, choreographers, architects, and people from all the other various arts coming together into a tightly compressed area, having daily interaction with one another. The problem is that Detroit is such a large city, and though artists are moving there, they're living very far apart from each other, and opportunities for interaction are limited. There’s a pocket here and a pocket there, but I think it would be very hard for Detroit to replicate that kind of East Village cultural phenomenon unless all these people who feed various aspects of the arts were pushed together in a more tightly compressed area and had prolonged daily interactions with one another—where young local artists are being supported by young local galleries, and the young local galleries by young critics contributing their own information, and by young curators who are doing their thing with the young critics, and so on. Then things would possibly start to vibrate at a much faster frequency. Right now things are vibrating in Detroit, but at a relatively slow frequency. 

Today Detroit's art scene seems to be like a hardy weed, finding opportunities in desolate areas. But when you were growing up there, it was a very different world. What was it like when you were growing up and first getting your feelers into the cultural milieu, and how have you experienced it evolving?

When I was growing up Detroit was a much more vibrant city in broad general terms, and the artistic side of the city was quite vibrant as well. You had a group of artists, the Cass Corridor artists from the '70s into the '80s who were bound together in what was admittedly a very rough area and engaged the kind of interchange I was just discussing with you in your previous question. There was also a very impressive and active group of African American artists in Detroit during this time, and these groups overlapped. So there was a vibrant scene for primary-market contemporary art and also secondary-market work from earlier in the 20th century. 

My earliest memories in Detroit are with my mother going to Donald Morris Gallery. Mr. Morris sold Joseph Cornell, Dubuffet, Calder, and other mid-century artists as well as local artists. I remember seeing my first Joseph Cornell box probably when I was six or seven years old with my mother at Mr. Morris’s gallery and being able to peer inside and play with it almost like a toy. So there was this vibrant international gallery scene as well. Also, Detroit is just a five-hour drive from Chicago, so between the DIA and the Art Institute of Chicago and the 1980s Chicago Art Fair, which was the American response to Art Basel at the time, there was a very powerful artistic draw to the Chicago-Detroit corridor in the 1980s. 

Earlier, in the late '70s, Detroit also birthed techno with the Belleville Three, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May. This officially began with Juan Atkin’s first release on Cybotron, Alleys of Your Mind, which was 1983. I actually have a copy of the seven-inch Alleys of Your Mind by Juan Atkins in this exhibition—I own that. So it was a very fertile, active period for all of the arts in a general sense. I might also add that Detroit at the time was considered a major city for theater, with Broadway shows touring to Detroit for final tryouts before going to New York. Detroit was the only city in the Midwest where the Metropolitan Opera toured.

So you were embedded in the art scene there and the techno scene at the same time that the city was starting to fall apart.

Sure, you had the riots, though I think of them as protests—the famous ’67 riot, or protest, changed the city. But it was really with the deindustrialization of the city that began in the '70s with the oil shocks where one could begin to see things shearing apart, and by the time the '70s were over and we entered the '80s during the Coleman Young period, the city was back on its heels and never recovered, due in part to white flight out of the city, the tremendous corruption within the local government, and a number of other reasons. 

Now the city is going through bankruptcy proceedings, and officials have discussed selling off the treasures of Detroitthe key holdings of the Detroit Institute of Art. What has your take been on the museum's high-wire act over the past few years, and what did you make of Christie's appraisal that the collection's masterpieces are worth $867 million at most?

The appraisal was not for all the masterpieces but only for a certain basket of works, because in fact a large part of the collection is not controlled by the city of Detroit and can't be sold at all. So Christie's only selected a small basket of artworks and said, "Well, these works are worth X." It’s hardly an indicator of what the collection is worth as a whole, but I was able to look at the list of those works in advance to review the estimates and I found them, to a greater or lesser extent, to be generally correct. But the issue is that if one took all these artworks and pushed them out into the market at the same time, there aren’t enough people worth nine or ten figures who are going to be able to swallow them all at one time, so one is going to wind up with the first artworks offered selling well and then the law of diminishing returns taking hold.

To purchase those sorts of artworks at those prices, one requires the very top tier of wealth, and there’s only a small group of people who are capable of regularly going out and buying items that are valued in the mid-to-high-eight-figures or higher. This means what one would realistically have to do is release the artworks out into the market slowly, a few at a time, over a long period of time, so one wouldn’t deflate the market—and if you do that, it’s going to take 10 or 20 years. This is the problem when you get people involved in the art market who don't really understand the inner workings of the specific situation. And I want to be clear and on the record that the forgoing discussion is purely technical, as I find the entire situation ethically, morally, and legally repugnant in the first place. 

One provocative sally in this controversy was an article that the economist Robert Frank wrote in the New York Times, where he said that if just Bruegel's Wedding Dance was sold for its estimated $200 million, that income would generate $12 million a year just in terms of interestand that conversely, by remaining unsold, it costs the city or museum about $6,000 per hour to display it. Considering that Frank is coming from an economically driven cost-benefit analysis, how can one effectively respond to such a quantified argument with the unquantifiable rewards of art?

Well, I guess I would say two things. First of all, museums are not in the business of monetizing transactions—they are in the business of building culture. It’s the same as saying if there's a really rare, important book in a library that nobody has taken out in a year, it means the book is useless and should be sold off. The book adds to the overall meaning of the library—you can't start chopping out pieces that you feel are either unimportant or worth a lot of money. 

The second part of the argument, which I find more to point, is this: the people who are asking for this money from the potential sale of DIA artworks are not the people of Detroit. If the artworks are sold off, it’s not going to light the street lamps, or pay for police or ambulances or firemen, or to help the infrastructure of the city. 

The people lining up on the bankruptcy court steps with their hats in their hands are financial institutions that were creating very, very risky financial instruments on Detroit’s behalf when Kwame Kilpatrick was mayor. And these financial institutions then sold these financial instruments they created to their investors as being a wise transactional play and most likely downplayed the seriousness of the risk involved. So now that the city has not been able to follow through on its commitments—and the commitments were onerous due to the way these financial instruments were initially written—these financial institutions are basically looking for a bailout. But it is the people at these financial institutions who wrote these financial instruments who are responsible for taking on tremendous amounts of risks, which they passed on to their consumers. 

It’s like if I go into a casino and I take my entire life’s savings and I bet it all on black and red comes up, then I’ve lost all my money. I don’t get to go to the casino after that and say, “Well, I took a big risk and I want you to give me my money back now—I’d like you to bail me out.” In this case you’ve invested in a bond or a financial instrument, and it’s your job to review and weigh that risk against the possible gains that could be made if everything proves out and does well, and then as a consumer you decide whether you want to be involved or not. And if things ‘Enron’ on you, then you’ve made a bet and you’ve lost. But they made the bet, they lost, but now they are looking to be bailed out by selling the holdings of the The Detroit Institute of Arts Museum.

So I find Robert Frank’s argument to miss the actual reality of the situation as a whole, because if it was a matter of selling the art to provide emergency services for elderly people who had lost their pensions, it would be a very different scenario. But I refuse to sell a piece of cultural patrimony to pay back a financial institution that knew it was making an already very risky bet on a proposition that most likely would fail. It’s ridiculous. The people of Detroit would benefit from the potential sale of the DIA artworks to the tune of either pennies on the dollar, or more likely absolutely zero.

Well, its great that because of the so-called grand bargain the art is actually not going to have to be sold off anymore. 

It's still not signed, sealed, and delivered, but we’re certainly moving in that direction. I hope it goes that way. 

Let's end on a more artistic note. You went to Detroit in April with Marianne Boesky and Max Levai and visited a few studios there. What did you find when you were on the ground, going from studio to studio, meeting these people, and sampling the current art scene there? 

I would say that, to a large extent, it’s really not much different from any city that I travel to that's not New York or Los Angeles or Chicago. I guess what it all comes down to is that when we talk about the “art world,” there's the very narrowly defined art world that we’re referring to here on Artspace with the big number auction-house results, and the art-fair nuttiness, and the resultant parties and after-parties and after-after-parties at the Jurassic-sized international galleries. But the art world is actually a massive ecology. 

I take a week usually at the end of each month and travel to places around the country. It could be the Boston area, it could be Aspen, or New Mexico, or the Phoenix area during another week. It could be Portland, Washington, and Vancouver at another point. It might be Alabama, Tennessee, and New Orleans on another trip. What I do is make an effort to travel to these areas that are less serviced by curators and gallerists, and go to the local museums and institutions to meet with their curators and see what they’re doing and what they’re thinking about. I learn a tremendous amount from all these experts who share their time and expertise with me.

Visiting these less mainstream and less served locales, one discovers that the ecology is far richer than one might otherwise imagine while living in the very narrow world where you and I exist for most of our time here in NYC. On one hand, it’s very humbling seeing artists working and living in an environment that's much more regional than the kind of international situation we are constantly exposed to, and to hear their concerns and what they are thinking. Detroit is very much like this. There are a lot of interesting people out there making very thoughtful work. It was particularly nice because this exhibition covered such a broad time span, and so I was able to include contemporary work being made right now by people living in Detroit right now, and to be able to share some of their thought processes and concerns with our narrow, tightly wound, overly-well-defined NYC audience. 

There's lots and lots of interesting work being made in all sorts of interesting places. 


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