Whitdel Arts Gallery: SW Giveth SW Taketh Away

By Marat Paransky


I am annoyed by negative work, and I don’t mean the physics kind of negative work. What I am referring to is the sort of action that unnecessarily undoes something that is up and running. Detroit’s Whitdel Arts Gallery is up and running yet it suddenly faces the prospect of having its lease terminated and its doors closed.

A bit of background: Whitdel is a nonprofit, member-based art gallery in Southwest Detroit. It is located on the ground floor of the Whitdel apartment building on Hubbard St., near Clark Park in Mexicantown. The space has been operating since 2007, when the empty building was revived by Southwest Housing Solutions (SWHS) and the gallery opened its doors under the umbrella of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID). From its very beginning, Whitdel was run entirely on a volunteer basis.

In 2013, the gallery experienced a damaging flood coming from an upstairs apartment; in 2014, the gallery had to deal with a deliberate, unprovoked smear campaign by a former member. Finally, 2015 saw Whitdel Arts become its own independent organization. Through it all, the gallery has organized dozens of successful exhibits, classes and community and children’s events. [Disclosure: I was a board member at Whitdel Arts in 2012/2013, and I have been a regular member since 2015].

To find out why Whitdel Arts is threatened with being mothballed I contacted the gallery’s president, JenClare Gawaran.


Marat Paransky: Please describe what the neighborhood is like around the gallery.

JenClare Gawaran: The neighborhood around Whitdel Arts has a lot of families, but many students and long-time residents, as well. It is one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the city.  We have discovered that it’s a tight-knit community – the residents are resilient and truly love their neighborhood.

MP: What is the status of the lease for Whitdel?

JG: The latest we have heard from Southwest Solutions is that they have decided to terminate our lease agreement.  Whitdel Arts was not given an exit date, or a start date for a “30 day notice.”  We would love to stay in the space, of course, but in the very least, we want to honor our commitments with the artists and curators we are working with this year.

MP: Why do you think this is happening now?

JG: We think it’s simply a lack of communication between Whitdel Arts and Southwest Solutions. Whitdel Arts used to be a part of another organization and our separation a couple years ago must not have been made clear to Southwest Solutions. We feel that Southwest Solutions may not fully know the board and staff that runs the space, and may not be familiar with all the programming and exhibitions we have consistently offered.  We’re confident that once we can meet with Southwest Solutions, along with all the support the public is showing, it will be clear just how important it is to let Whitdel continue its work.

MP: SWS has argued that, “It has become too difficult to determine what is going on with the art space and the community mission is being lost.”  Do you think that there is a judgment of taste that’s involved here, in terms of what art should or shouldn’t be happening in the space?  Is it strictly financial? Or a mixture of the two?

JG: We don’t believe a judgment of taste about the artwork is at play, nor has Southwest Solutions given us any reason to think it’s financial.  It seems to be mostly the confusion of who runs the gallery’s programming.

MP: Has there been any evidence to suggest that the art space is losing touch with the community? Has the scope shifted away from local artistic production in any way?

JG: The scope definitely hasn’t shifted away from local artistic production!  In recent years, we have added exhibitions to our schedule that focus solely on artists residing in Southwest Detroit.  We’ve also held exhibitions featuring students attending high schools throughout Detroit.  Our focus on local emerging artists has been in full swing since we started our emerging artist space.  In addition to our exhibitions, we’ve worked with local organizations such as Clark Park, the Bowen Library, Congress of Communities and the Mint Artists Guild and the Palmer Park Art Fair.  Whitdel Arts has become more known to artists across the country and abroad, but we also continue to foster our ties locally.

MP: Why should the people of Detroit care about the possible end of Whitdel Arts?  How will this potentially affect southwest Detroit?

JG: If Whitdel Arts is gone, it will be one less space for artists to exhibit their work, one less space for local youth to engage in learning experiences, one less space for viewing artwork that would perhaps cause people to view the world around them in a different way.  It would be one less space for emerging artists to jump start their career (something that we are becoming known for with our emerging artist shows), and one less space for other organizations to hold workshops and meetings.  As an artist-run gallery, we have a firsthand understanding of the type of programming that would encourage dialogue about various topics and issues.  We feel it’s important to keep artist-run spaces. Since they can be more creative and experimental, they can often offer something much different than commercially run spaces.

Southwest Detroit offers so much, and those living outside its borders may never visit unless given some reason to come down.  In our experience, once they make their first visit, they come back.  It’s pivotal for Southwest Detroit to retain its businesses, galleries and residents to keep the neighborhood flourishing.

MP: Is there anything else you would like to add?

JG: We’ve already received an outpouring of support from the public, who have sent in their letters of support on behalf of Whitdel Arts to Southwest Solutions.  We’d like to extend a huge and eternal thanks to everyone!  It is a great reminder of why we do the work we do.  We’d love to keep this momentum of support going!

At the time of writing, there has been no indication from SWHS that the gallery’s lease will be extended. For more information on what’s going on and how you can help, please go to: www.whitdelarts.com

Image, Julia Maiuri: Running on the Beach