In the summer of 2016, my wife, Alex, and I moved to Detroit after many years of living in Bloomfield Hills. During the weekends we started to explore the city, its amenities and events. One evening we visited the store Detroit is the New Black where there was a pop-up art exhibition showing work by local sculptor Austen Brantley. There, we met Austin and other people, including Judy Bowman, another local artist who works with mixed media. In our conversation about Detroit and the art scene, she and others mentioned that many local artists show their artwork at a diner called Noni’s Sherwood Grill on Livernois Avenue in Detroit every Monday. The Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, founded by Henry Harper and Harold Braggs, organized this weekly gathering.
The following Monday, Alex attended the event and reported back what she saw: local artists presenting their artwork (one or two pieces maximum) in front of a number of collectors and art lovers while having a meal (it used to be breakfast, now it is dinner). Apart from the art itself, the stories behind it and the people were an authentic example of Detroit’s community fabric. All of it sounded very interesting and strongly reminded me of the artist and writer gatherings, called “tertulias,” which used to take place in local cafes in Spain in the late 19th and early 20th century and were the cultural life engine of the time.
I, of course, attended a Breakfast Club “tertulia” and as the director of the DIA, the attendees were happy to see me and asked me to address the group. This was the start of a friendship with the Breakfast Club; now they meet at the DIA a couple of Mondays each year. The talent of local artists and the passion of collectors is something the museum obviously wants to nurture. In fact, the new acquaintances and friendships that emerged from Noni’s are at the origin of our upcoming show: Detroit Collects: Selection of African American Art from Private Collections (November 12, 2019 – March 1, 2020). The exhibition will come with a catalogue that features the collectors and some of the works loaned to the exhibition. It has been a great tool to provide voice to individuals who have an amazing Detroit story to share about art and African American history and culture. In fact, one of the things I learned is that our city has been collecting African American art the longest in the United States.
In developing this exhibition and organizing related dinners at our home and other places, Alex and I have been able to connect with our community in a very special fashion. We have discovered fascinating collections and have enjoyed the hospitality of many new friends in the city. We are grateful for the time and knowledge that many have shared with us. I am personally very proud of the role the DIA has played in this effort, with our curator of the General Motors Center for African American Art, Valerie Mercer, deepening its roots in the soil of Detroit’s history. We continue to meet new people, to discover new collections, to see new works created by our artists, and it is my hope that this exhibition, which is free for the residents of Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties, will be the first of a series of shows that will continue to elevate our history and showcase our collection of African American art, one of the best in the world.