From Church to Art Gallery in Detroit

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May 31, 2016; Detroit Free Press

This week, “War Games,” an art exhibit curated by New York–based Moran Bondaroff galleries, opened in a former church on Detroit’s Near West Side. The exhibit is a result of a brief conversation between gallery owners Paul Johnson (Johnson Trading Gallery, New York City) and Al Moran (Moran Bondaroff Gallery, Los Angeles) in Miami of 2014. Both were discussing how boring it had become to exhibit art in the bare, white, cubicle-type spaces that have become the norm. During that conversation, Johnson revealed that he recently bought an abandoned church in Detroit and offered the space to Moran for an exhibit.

Johnson purchased the 50,000-square-foot Woods Cathedral for just under $7,000. Originally built in 1925 as Visitation Catholic Church, the building was sold by the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit in 1983. The building has been empty for nearly a decade. Johnson has invested more than $250,000 in renovations to get the space ready for use. During the renovations, Johnson made it a priority to hire local workers, as opposed to bringing in a crew of outsiders. Both Johnson and Moran also took time to get to know the neighborhood and were careful to remember that they were working on someone else’s turf. To that end, Moran’s directive for “War Games” and upcoming exhibits was that they avoid references to Detroit’s history or the current issues facing the city.

The exhibit is another example of the growing draw of the arts world toward Detroit. Much of the credit for that belongs to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Detroit offers artists plentiful options for inexpensive studio space and the ability to repurpose existing spaces. Last year, two well-known galleries that had been established in the suburbs chose to have a presence downtown. One was the David Klein Gallery, which opened a downtown branch, and the other was Wasserman Projects, which completely relocated to the Eastern Market. The Brooklyn-based Galapagos Art Scene also announced in 2014 that it would be relocating to Detroit, a decision made after its leadership began seeking locales that offered cheaper rent. To top it all off, last year, Detroit’s high rank in the arts world received additional credibility when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added Detroit to its list as a city of design. Detroit was the first city in the U.S. to receive that designation.

“War Games,” the first of three exhibits to take place in the former Woods Cathedral over the next year, shows how artists and galleries can innovate to  revitalize a neighborhood. The care and thoughtfulness behind opening this new art space may help solidify Detroit’s place in the art world.—Kelley Malcolm