In Detroit, a New York Gallerist Opens a Shuttered Church to New Possibilities
In 2014, Paul Johnson of New York’s Johnson Trading Gallery acquired a rare real estate gem: Detroit’s 1925 Woods Cathedral, a 50,000-square-foot building that had retained the beautiful ornate details of its Gothic archways, stained-glass windows, and religious murals. It was also roofless, semi-flooded, and completely stripped of its metal parts. Johnson found the church online at the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction (where prices for entire homes start at as little as $500), and bought it for the bargain price of $6,700.
In June, following two years and approximately $250,000 in renovations—scraping, painting, electrical installation, and plumbing—Johnson reopens the former church as JTG Detroit Project, a nebulous cultural space that will launch with a group exhibition organized by L.A. gallery Moran Bondaroff. “We’ve got the main cathedral room in a good enough condition where we can host the first show,” says Johnson, although “the rest of the building still needs work”—namely, new roofs and new drains.
It’s a scenario that follows a now-typical art-world model: A derelict space is acquired, refurbished, and transformed into a space to make and showcase art. What’s atypical, however, is JTG Detroit Project’s location in a city that for decades has suffered under steep economic decline. Johnson’s interest in Detroit began through his representation of two local designers, Cranbrook Academy of Art graduates Chris Schanck and Jack Craig—the latter now uses a room in the cathedral as his studio.
The church had landed on the auction block, alongside some 24,000 other properties seized in and around Detroit, after a tumultuous history. Originally the home of Visitation Catholic Church, the building, designed by local architects Carey & Esselstyn, changed hands as the white population of Detroit precipitously dropped. In 1983, it was acquired by the Woods Cathedral Church of God in Christ, a congregation of the black Pentecostal movement that stopped submitting its annual report to the city sometime between 2006 and 2008. Around this time, the copper in the roof was stripped and sold as scrap metal, and the church became a temporary destination in Detroit’s underground rave scene. In 2012, the church was the site of a clandestine installation by Los Angeles artists Revok and Jim Darling, who built a sort of altar of urban refuse, a beautifully symmetrical assemblage of broken TVs, sofas, and pews that they titled Sunday Mass.
With its abundance of real estate at absurdly low prices, Detroit has been a locus for young artists. “Let’s say 10 years ago, kids who went to school around here realized that they could live very cheap, start their own businesses, and buy their own buildings,” says Johnson. “Because it didn’t cost a lot to survive, they could produce work here.”
What’s less clear is how the presence of artists will affect, or even benefit Detroit. (The five days of theorizing potential methods of urban revitalization that took place there during Ideas City in April proved inconclusive.) Apart from “bringing more people in,” Johnson set no clear plan for the Detroit space, a completely separate entity from his art and design gallery in New York—yet he has also acquired another property, a former mechanic shop.
Moran Bondaroff is also reticent to say how its own presence in Detroit fits into the city’s bigger picture. On June 2nd, the gallery opens the first stop of its new itinerant residency program at JTG Detroit Project. Titled “War Games,” the group exhibition curated by Benjamin Godsill, formerly of Phillips and the New Museum, is based on the use of contemporary technology and features work by Simon Denny, Yngve Holen, Haley Mellin, and nine others. “The exhibition would work in L.A., in New York, in Detroit, or in Texas,” says gallery co-founder Al Moran. “We’re not making a statement about a city that we have very little experience in; we’re very conscious of the fact that we’re not from Detroit, and so we won’t be taking liberties that aren’t ours to take.”
Moran Bondaroff’s residency will last for one year, and will include a project with Anders Ruhwald, the head of Cranbrook’s ceramics department. Beyond that, the JTG Project website is currently soliciting “interested parties that have unique vision,” whether that vision is in “real estate, art, design, food, film, fashion, [or] entertainment.” Who these partners will be is just as uncertain as the audience these art spaces will attract, and what the space will contribute to Detroit. Both the city and the gallerists will have to wait and see.