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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Detroit’s new arts complex aims to foster a sense of belonging among its visitors

When JJ Curis and her husband, Anthony Curis, opened the Library Street Collective in 2012, they didn’t realise what they were getting themselves into. “If we had known what we were getting ourselves into,” JJ Curis said. “I’m not sure we would have gone into it.” However, she believes that their naiveté while embarking on that initial enterprise may have provided them with the opportunity to conduct future business in an unorthodox manner.

Curises purchased and restored the Good Shepherd Catholic Church and rectory, which were built in 1912, with the hope of contributing to the city’s artistic renaissance. They are now redeveloping the structures and surrounding land into a new cultural arts complex, which they are self-funding themselves. According to the Shepherd, which will open in the spring of 2023, it will be a combination of a commercial gallery space, an educational institution, and a neighbourhood community centre.

“Everything is not bad gentrification,” said Rochelle Riley, director of arts and culture for the city of Detroit, who has endorsed the project and assisted the Curises through the difficult permission process.

From their beginnings as young collectors with prior work experience in other fields — Anthony is a Detroit native who worked in his family’s real estate development company, and JJ is from Indianapolis with a background in public accounting — the couple, both 40 and based in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, have built a dynamic programme that extends beyond the four walls of the gallery space. They began by cooperating with artists such as Jammie Holmes, Nina Chanel Abney, and Sam Durant on public art projects in Detroit, which was still wounded by riots in the late 1960s. They worked on projects in buildings and places all around the city.

We were interested from the beginning in seeing how the gallery could benefit our community, said Anthony, who was sitting in the rectory of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Detroit’s East Village, a small neighbourhood about 15 minutes east of downtown. “From the beginning, we were deeply interested in seeing how we could impact our community with the gallery,” he said.

It is the centrepiece of their master plan, which obtained final special zoning and land use permissions from the city earlier this month along with letters of support from local groups such as the East Village Association and the East Village Association of New York. A public library, two new galleries, and a workshop area are all planned for the inside of the church, which was designed by Brooklyn-based architectural company Peterson Rich Office.

It will be the opening exhibition of a retrospective of the Detroit artist and muralist Charles McGee, who was also a co-founder of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, at the Shepherd. McGee, who died this year at the age of 96, is commemorated by various murals and sculptures across the city that he cherished, and he served as a mentor to many other local artists throughout his lifetime.

A future exhibition and performance staged by Library Street Collective in collaboration with other galleries, organisations, and collectors is in the works, according to the Curises, who are organising the McGee centennial with the Museum of Art Collection Detroit. They are also creating a permanent public sculpture garden on the grounds of the church block and supervising the fabrication of three new sculptural groupings based on motifs from his earlier mixed-media wall reliefs. McGee will be remembered with a permanent public sculpture garden on the grounds of the church block. Among them are humorous figures that have been enlarged up to 14 feet in height, interlocking biomorphic forms with geometric black and white patterned backgrounds that serve as seats, and abstracted scribbles that have been converted into hedge-like structures that youngsters may zigzag through.

Upon completion, the Charles McGee Legacy Park, which will be a gift to the city of Detroit thanks to extra funds provided by Dan and Jennifer Gilbert in cooperation with the neighbourhood group Jefferson East, Inc., will serve as a model for other parks throughout the country.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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