Evicted from Whitdel Apartments, Whitdel Arts will go forward with the two exhibits originally planned for this Friday, April 15, 2016, at 7:00 p.m., just that at different locations. The Whitdel Arts 2016 Members’ Show will now take place at Inner State Gallery at the originally scheduled date and time, while Julia Maiuri’s solo show that would have taken place in the Emerging Artists space will now take place at Corktown Studios, on the originally scheduled date but starting at 6:00 p.m. Both Inner State Gallery and Corktown Studios are privately owned.
But Whitdel Arts is not privately owned. In fact, neither Whitdel Arts nor the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID, which Whitdel was initially a division of) have ever paid rent to Southwest Solutions. Rent for an 1,800 square foot space in Detroit can easily run in excess of $1,000 a month.
In return for this generosity, Whitdel Arts was supposed to fulfill some sort of community mission. Whitdel does quote an excerpt from a letter from Steven Gabrys of Southwest Solutions: “It has become too difficult to determine what is going on with the art space and the community mission is being lost.” But Whitdel does not quote what that community mission is supposed to be.
However, Whitdel’s page on Idealist.org states that Whitdel “showcases the work of local and international established and emerging artists.” Local or international, the artists are almost always white. Since starting in 2009 or 2010 and going up to 2013, Whitdel had exhibited just two black artists. In 2014, Carl Wilson became the first black man to ever exhibit at Whitdel. Austen Brantley became the second black man to exhibit at Whitdel in 2015, and there hasn’t been a third.
Only one Mexican American artist, Kia Ixchel Arriaga, has ever exhibited at Whitdel, and that was back in 2013. No Mexican artists have exhibited at Whitdel, in sharp contrast to Inner State Gallery. Whitdel could dispute these numbers, but with what few upward revisions there may be to be had, the numbers would still be rather anemic. A perusal of byteclay.com’s Whitdel Arts topic page will show white artists almost exclusively. In the context of Whitdel’s definite preference for white artists, Carl Swanson’s blunder with his Vulture article of 2015 is almost understandable and forgivable.
An informal and unscientific survey last month of talented, young, black and Latino artists in the neighborhood revealed that almost all of them were unaware of Whitdel Arts being in the neighborhood. Those who did know about Whitdel regarded it as unlikely that they could ever exhibit at Whitdel regardless of the quality of their work, as they lack the credentials that young white artists, even those of little skill, are likely to have acquired almost automatically.
Just as important as having diversity in artists exhibited is having diversity in people who come to the gallery. Mostly only white people from the suburbs come to Whitdel’s opening receptions. The gallery assistants regard southwest Detroit as being extremely dangerous, and much prefer that no one at all come to gallery hours.
Whitdel Arts disrespected the community, and was here strictly only for the free rent. Southwest Solutions is not saying much at this point, but there have been hints that a community mission in the arts is still regarded as essential, though in a manner that shows respect and gratitude to the community. “We can’t stop, we won’t stop,” Whitdel declared in their Facebook page. But as far as the community is concerned, at least they have stopped taking up space in the neighborhood.
Addendum, April 20, 2016: New Detroit Realty has a listing for a 6,500-square foot space downtown going for $10 per square foot per month, which seems to be a fairly common price. Maybe this can be scaled down to 1,800 square feet, for which rent would be $18,000 a month and run $216,000 per year (which is still substantially greater than free rent).
If one can pay that kind of rent for an art gallery, one doesn’t have to explain one’s exhibition choices to anyone. And if an organization can afford to give an art gallery that kind of rent for free, that organization is at the very least owed some gratitude.