05/10/2012 04:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Detroit Artists Market Celebrates 80 Years of Showcasing Art

Artists Matthew Lasinski, Hughie Lee-Smith, and Fred Papsdorf (left to right) helping move the Detroit Artists Market to its 110 Madison Street location in 1956. (Credit: Detroit Times, January 31, 1956. Image courtesy of Detroit Artists Market.)

Since 1932, the Detroit Artists Market has provided a venue for local artists to present their work. Indeed, just about every artist of note to come out of the city since then has shown at DAM at one time or another, many having been introduced to the public under its auspices. In fact, according to a tally being compiled by Board Member Vice-Chair and longtime Detroit artist Gary Eleinko, more than 3,200 artists have shown there over the years, including Hughie Lee-Smith, who got his start at DAM, Harry Bertoia, and Richard DeVore. To help celebrate its 80th anniversary, the Detroit Artists Market is the subject of an exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum titled Detroit Artists Market: the First 80 Years. Installed in the museum's Community Gallery, it's an exhibition that's well worth seeing.

Mrs. H. Lee (Mildred) Simpson,

"Woman of the Week,"

Detroit Free Press

December 20, 1942.

(Courtesy Detroit Artists Market.)

As the story goes, DAM was founded in a garden in Grosse Pointe during the Great Depression as a venue for artists to exhibit and sell their work. The founders, led by socialite Mildred (or as she preferred to be known, Mrs. H. Lee) Simpson, included several of the city's cultural elite who were also patrons of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, the support organization behind what is now College for Creative Studies. At first restricted to exhibiting artists under age 30, DAM soon became a space for showcasing those who were both emerging and established.

DAM's first location was 1432 Farmer Street near Grand Circus Park, a site now occupied by the downtown Detroit YMCA. The next year, it moved two blocks over to Witherell Street on the park's southeast circular edge, where it remained for more than two decades. When I first showed there in the 1980s, DAM was at 1452 Randolph, overlooking Harmonie Park, a space it occupied for just over three decades beginning in 1961. After a few years at Stroh River Place in the '90s, it ended up at the corner of Woodward and Forest in the Cultural Center where it remains today.

The exhibition at the Historical Museum is installed salon style and features more than 130 works created over DAM's history. It's organized chronologically with groupings that represent the artists being shown at each of the six locations it occupied over the years. Things are literally brought full circle by two paintings installed next to one another in a corner, the one a view of Washington Boulevard by Amy Lorimer painted in 1934 and the other, Detroit Night by Darcel Deneau, hot off the easel having been completed just this year. It's all a bit cluttered but fitting given DAM's traditional egalitarian stance in presenting work. An unfortunate but necessary concession to the room is the installation of a large number of works, generally it seems those considered the most valuable, in a floor-to-ceiling glassed-in display case that takes up more than half of one of the gallery's cramped walls. As a whole, though, the exhibition provides an interesting snapshot of the art created, shown, and collected in Detroit for a good part of the 20th century.

Given its founding date, it's not surprising that the early period reflects the aesthetics of the American Scene, which had a strong influence in the Midwest and in Detroit in the time between the two World Wars. The earliest painting in the show, a view of an Indian pueblo in Santa Clara, was done by Zoltan Sepeshy in 1926, five years before he became a painting instructor at Cranbrook Academy of Art, a post from which he propagated the aesthetics of the American Scene to young artists first as an artist-in-residence and then as Director, replacing Eliel Saarinen after the architect's death in 1950. Also represented is Edgar Louis Yaeger, who in 1935 joined the Works Progress Administration/Federal Artists Project, completing murals for the Public Lighting Commission in Detroit, Grosse Pointe City Hall, Children's Hospital (since destroyed), and the Ford School in Highland Park among other public commissions.

Magnolias, 1947, by self-taught artist Fred Papsdorf sets the style for the artist's later work and features the artist's original-made frame.  His first solo show took place at DAM in 1938; in the 1940s and 1950s he showed nationally and was featured in Art Digest, Art News, and other publications. (Image courtesy of Pat Glascock and Michael Hall.)

DAM has also supported more avant-garde pursuits, having mounted the exhibition Abstract Art is Reality in 1952 organized by legendary Futurist collector Lydia Winston Malbin, daughter of Albert Kahn, who along with Hilla Rebay, the Alsacean baroness and artist who helped found the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (originally the Museum of Non-Objective Art) in New York City, had pioneered the exhibition of abstract art in Detroit a decade earlier. And in the aftermath of the 1967 civil unrest, DAM presented the exhibition Seven Black Artists curated by Kresge Arts in Detroit Eminent Artist Charles McGee. In later years, DAM showcased performance art, installation, and intermedia. There is also a bit of the more peripheral elements of the local scene. In particular, there is a really nice painting titled "Magnolias" from 1947 by Fred Papsdorf, known as "The Milkman Painter of Detroit" and "The American Rousseau," a self-taught artist who was discovered at age 49 in the late 1930s at a Saturday drawing class by School of the Arts and Crafts professor Sarkis Sarkisian (also represented in the show) and who went on to show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Carnegie Institute, as well as with the Perls Gallery in New York.

Many exhibitions also featured catalogs documenting the work and other ephemera, examples of which are presented in a vitrine in the center of the gallery space. (It's too bad, a travesty really, that there isn't a catalog for this show, though a video presentation of photos and newspaper articles provides some context.) There are also some fine samples of the work of Ed Fella, made while he was still in the process of transitioning from Detroit advertising hack (known back in the day as "The King of Zing") to internationally recognized typographical deconstructionist and postmodern graphic design guru.

For those of us of a certain vintage, DAM is noteworthy for its early support of the Motor City's very own first avant-garde, the Cass Corridor movement of the late 1960s/early 1970s. There's a nice if modest example of the style by Bradley Jones and another by the group's mentor John Egner, plus the reverberations of its influence on artists, such as Gilda Snowden, who came later on. One of the vexing aspects of the exhibition is that even though one appreciates and values the intent of the broad survey, too many of the artists are represented by relatively minor work due to restrictions of space and, one presumes, budget. Fortunately, in the case of the Cass Corridor there is an opportunity to see some more ambitious examples of the style at the N"Namdi Center for Contemporary Art as part of the exhibition "Menage a Detroit: Three Generations of Expressionist Art in Detroit, 1970-2012" curated by Dennis Alan Nawrocki (more on that to come).

While you're checking out the Historical Museum show, make sure to take in the current offering at DAM, the Biannual All Media Exhibition 2012 juried by Leon Johnson. It's a good glimpse of some of the more cutting-edge work now being done in Detroit and a fitting way to bring the view of DAM up to the present moment. You likely won't recognize that many of the 26 names whose work is represented. But that's exactly as it should be as DAM carries on.
Save the Poets, 2012, (painted found Shakespeare books, wood, spackle, charcoal) by Barbara Dorchen is one of the works by 26 emerging and established artists featured in the Detroit Artists Market "Biannual All Media Exhibition 2012." (Image courtesy of the artist.)

"Detroit Artists Market: The First 80 Years" is on view at the Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward Ave. at Kirby in Detroit until May 24. For more information, call (313) 833-1805 or visit The Biannual All Media Exhibition runs at Detroit Artists Market, 4719 Woodward at Forest, also until May 24. Call (313) 832-8540 or visit for details.