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Gary Wasserman on His New Gallery and Art's Role in Detroit

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"My friend once told me that 'Detroit is a place where you show people where things used to be,'" says gallerist, steel company executive and developer Gary Wasserman. "That's no longer true. Now you show people where great things are happening."

Wasserman plans on doing just that come September 25, when his new 9,000-square-foot gallery opens in a former fire station next to Detroit's Eastern Market, a historic wholesale food market near downtown. A Detroit native, philanthropist, and patron of the arts, he left the city about 15 years ago, most recently working in Miami and Naples before returning, convinced the city had a new energy and had broken what he called a cycle of survival and negativity. While the hype over Detroit's rebirth may seem like its been discussed extensively (especially for those from Detroit), Wasserman is an unabashed civic booster. He believes his new venue—an exhibition-hall style space that will rotate shows a few times a year, may or may not sell work from the main exhibition, and will support an array of multidisciplinary events—fits in with the city's organic model of growth. It's aim is to help create a broader dialogue, as opposed to a standard gallery churning through shows, and become a space dedicated to encouraging creativity, whether it's expressed through making furniture or growing the perfect apple (seeing how an upcoming show will feature an artist breeding chickens, an orchard isn't a stretch).

"I tell people not to look for a forest of cranes, you won't find that here in Detroit," he says. "You need to listen to the ground bubble up."

Curbed spoke to Wasserman about the state of Detroit, the gallery's philosophy, and why the arts can attract industry, but can't sustain them.

Why did you decide to return to Detroit?
"I heard stories of what was happening here, but I'd heard those stories all my life. I'd been deeply involved here for many years and left in frustration, I didn't put much stock in those stories. Then a friend came asking me to help on a large project for a European collector. When I actually came and started looking around at what was happening here, it was thrilling. The truth was 50 percent of the hype, but that was still a lot. There was a different atmosphere here, a different sense of possibility that wasn't here before, and that has only improved in the three years since. The bankruptcy created a lot of positive things, as well as negative things, not the least of which was this sense of possibility and optimism."

You'd said Detroit in the past was based on a cycle of survival and negativity. What's different this time around?
"For years, I was very involved with the Thanksgiving Parade, International Freedom Festival, Michigan Opera and Cranbrook. For the institutions within the city, it was always a campaign to try and survive. It wasn't about programming or new ideas, it was about how are we going to keep our heads above water for the next X period of time. What has happened though, within the vicissitudes of the place, is the cultural infrastructure is as secure as it's been for a very long time. There was a group of very dedicated people who have worked very long in an atmosphere that was very challenging. So today, with that cultural infrastructure intact and the development of the downtown area, together with the growth in Midtown, Corktown, and Eastern Market, everything is positioned, ready and receptive, with a new vitality for investment. It's a great example of Richard Florida's concept of the Rise of the Creative Class. They're drawn first due to the affordability, and then engaged by a sense of mission."

You've talked about what you want to do with the gallery specifically being about doing something excellent. Why is excellence so important?
"It needs to be unique. It can't just be another place. Detroit was about survival, but as a new urban expression emerges, it's not creating the same things you can experience elsewhere. It's not the franchising and mall building of America that's exciting. It's creating singular experiences, which Seattle and Portland have been so very successful in doing. We now have restaurants in Detroit that have authentic character and fabulous food that would stand up to those in any city, but are unique to this one. Hopefully, what we do is not like something somewhere else but stands on its own for being interesting, engaging and exciting. Having programming that takes advantage of the unique format that Detroit offers in terms of space and breaking paradigms; if that is achieved, that is excellence."

How are you supporting local galleries and local artists with Wasserman Projects?
"First of all, all galleries help the art scene. Our position is to be something that's not a conventional gallery, to be a combination of a kunsthalle gallery, concert hall, permanent installation, and so on. We are bringing in practitioners who would otherwise not be seen in Detroit, and, as we are also doing in this case, and hopefully as much as possible, showing them along with someone local."

You often hear Detroit is this laboratory, people are experimenting, it's a new frontier. Do these statements still paint an accurate picture of the city, with a Whole Foods and Shinola store in town?
"Of course. Shinola is such an important part of the story. On one hand it remains an outpost, but it's also an anchor that's creating a bit of a retail district where for years, there was little or none. The same is true of Whole Foods. It came into a place where there had been a dearth of grocery stores, certainly nothing of the quality of Whole Foods. They're all part of the thread and the fabric that ultimately create the city. The idea that it's still a laboratory is an exciting thing, a positive thing. Shinola and Whole Foods are important threads in a fabric, but there have to be more. Today's there's John Varvatos, Whole Foods is opening a second store in Detroit. They are all parts of what makes this fabric and texture come together. It's the Jane Jacobs model, one which has not had a great deal of road testing in Detroit. This city has been prone to grand gestures, but none of those things created a city. They created islands within a city. Now, all of these components are coming together, and the fact that there aren't predetermined expectations or rules or even a vision of what this place is supposed to be is really exciting."

Does it matter that Shinola is basically a group from outside the city?
"I don't think that matters. They are outsiders; so what? How great is it that outsiders wanted to come here? When they started their project, Detroit wasn't where it was today. I believe Detroit was in the depths of despair. That was still the Kwame Kilpatrick era, or at least recovering from it. They saw the value here and invested in it? That's great. I hope other outsiders do that as well."

Your schedule of upcoming exhibitions includes the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, where an artist is raising chickens inside the gallery, which could be seen as a miniature enterprise. What's the connection between art and entrepreneurship, especially in Detroit?
"It goes back to the original function of an artist, to comment on his or her surroundings and move them forward in some way. The entree to that kind of a mission is a far cry from the saturated art fair industry or the massive gallery districts in other cities. Detroit offers a return to both that mission and the possibility of making a living at a creative life. Coming to Detroit is a viable alternative. People come here because it's affordable, then they find out it has a robust cultural infrastructure, which is still intact from when it was the fourth largest city in the United States. Then you find yourself engaged in this mission of building this place. It doesn't mean it's all going to work, but your money is going to go farther here than in New York, San Francisco or Chicago."

Wasserman Projects opens September 25, featuring a collaboration between Markus Linnenbrink and Nick Gelpi and an outdoor exhibition by Detroit artist Jon Brumit

Wasserman to Open New Art Gallery in Eastern Market [Curbed Detroit]
All Eastern Market coverage [Curbed]