Mike Kelley, the late and famous multi-media artist who grew up in the Metro Detroit area, felt connected to the city and wanted to make an enduring contribution that would help draw artistic experiences into it.
As the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) was being established, Kelley offered to create and locate a replica of his childhood home as an annex to the main building, what had been a car dealership on Woodward transformed to hold exhibitions, films, concerts and literary presentations.
The replica would provide additional space for artistic offerings that express outlooks for today.
The idea for locating what would be named the Mobile Homestead was developed through conversations with Marsha Miro, MOCAD founding director and board president, who got to know the artist by communicating with and about him while writing for the Free Press.
It’s been 20 years since the idea for MOCAD began among friends and 10 years since it opened as a result of their determination. MOCAD, which doesn’t hold art but hosts changing projects, will celebrate its achievements and anniversary Oct. 7 with a dinner gala, afterglow and a fundraising auction spotlighting the kinds of works that remain its focus.
“I love the way MOCAD has grown and never been complacent,” says Miro, who has been a member of Temple Beth El and takes pride in the diversity of artists and subjects that have been featured at MOCAD. “The enthusiasm of our board members, many from the Jewish community, is an important reason MOCAD has gained attention.”
The MOCAD building, renovated with a grant from the Richard & Jane Manoogian Foundation, developed into a cultural center with financing from a number of contributing organizations, including the Knight Foundation, Kresge Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
There have been 79 exhibitions and close to 350,000 visitors.
“I didn’t want an admission price to be a barrier, so people can view our exhibitions and not pay a dollar,” says Miro, who credits Julie Reyes Taubman, author-photographer of Detroit: 138 Square Miles, for being a stronghold in launching the board. “The organization has become more stable than I ever dreamed.”
As MOCAD grew in visitor attendance, many Jewish artists spotlighted their work. They reach from internationally known graphic novelist Art Spiegelman to local filmmaker Oren Goldenberg.
Alex Melamid, who has lived in Israel and whose works have become part of the collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, had his first solo showing at MOCAD with paintings of African American rappers. Two had Detroit ties — 50 Cent (Curtis James Jackson III), who was discovered by Motown’s Eminem, and Common (Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr.), who has collaborated with the city’s MC J. Dilla.
“I try to explain that even people like me, at 62, can discover new things, especially if they rely on their children,” Melamid told the Jewish News in 2008, when his exhibit was shown and in keeping with a MOCAD outlook that set up a Teen Council.
Jens Hoffmann, who serves as the Susanne Feld Hilberry senior curator-at-large for MOCAD, is deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York. He works closely with Elysia Borowy-Reeder, also of Jewish heritage and MOCAD executive director for three years.
“I’m enjoying a nice balance between the two museums,” Hoffmann has told the JN. “The Jewish Museum is more set and can mount very ambitious exhibitions, while MOCAD is much more fluid with a smaller team that works very collaboratively.”
Hoffmann connected with MOCAD because of curating an exhibit in California that traveled to Michigan.
“I was fascinated with Detroit after reading Making the Modern by Terry Smith,” he says. “That was like an introduction to the city about five years ago, before I ever went there, and I found the city very welcoming.”
Hoffmann’s most recent project for the contemporary art center, curating Detroit City/Detroit Affinities by Matthew Angelo Harrison, will be on view through Jan. 1. It showcases sculpture made with 3-D printing.
Elyse Foltyn, a member of Temple Beth El and founding trustee of the Jewish Women’s Foundation, is co-chair of the MOCAD board. She visited MOCAD for five years before making a commitment to participate by using her skills as a longtime investment professional.
“I recently worked on writing the MOCAD strategic plan for the next five years,” says Foltyn, who maintains a personal blog that covers survival and includes commentary about the Holocaust and its effects on her family. “We’re trying to deliver great experiences with visual, performance and literary arts.
“We don’t really consider MOCAD a museum. We consider it a laboratory for public engagement with the arts. It’s very freeing to present programming that fuels discussion, provides opportunities for local talent and maintains a platform for those holding international attention.”
Ellen Cantor, who grew up in Michigan and studied at Brandeis University, developed an international career as a filmmaker and showcased her work at MOCAD. Miro paid tribute to Cantor and her projects at a memorial service for the artist in 2013.
“We have exceeded our early goals for MOCAD,” Miro says. “By covering different media and presenting educational programs, we have opened the city to contemporary art, and I believe that is helpful to the rebirth of Detroit.
“In the future, I’d like to bring in more craft media and establish an endowment to secure the future of MOCAD.” *
The MOCAD Gala & Art Auction will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7, at the museum; tickets start at $1,000. The afterglow starts at 10 p.m.; tickets begin at $15. (313) 832-6622; mocadetroit.org.
By Suzanne Chessler, Contributing Writer