During the recent bankruptcy proceedings, the potential sale of art was focal point of negotiations. Clearly, that didn’t happen, but it did rally the region around another Detroit cultural gem–art–and its role in Detroit’s cultural fabric.
And an integral part of Detroit’s art scene is the N’Nambdi Center for Contemporary Art. It was created by Founder, Director and Entrepreneur, George N’Nnamdi, a leading art dealer, with 30+ years experience as a gallery owner. The Center for Contemporary Art is located at 52 E. Forest in Midtown Detroit’s historic Sugar Hill Arts District.
The Center includes four exhibition spaces, including indoor and outdoor performance areas. The Center continues N’Namdi’s work in the preservation of master artists and providing local artists a home for their art, including performance art and experiential theater and offers an array of programming including juried shows, lectures, art invitationals, family events, and an artist in residence program. The N’Namdi Center Complex houses Seva, a vegetarian restaurant; a gift and bookstore; wine bar and additional boutique stores.
The N’Namdi Collection, anchored by contemporay abstract paintings, is one of the finest private collections of African American art in the world and combines works covering more than a century of art in every genre. It is also a tool for educating audiences on the contributions of people of African descent to the discourse of modern and contemporary art. According to its website, “As the culmination of over 40 years of commitment, entrepreneurship, and discernment, the collection represents the many divergent approaches to making art, and the history, struggles and triumphs of a people.”
I recently discussed Detroit’s art scene with N’Namdi, his decision to expand and relocate into Detroit and art’s overall importance to the city’s cultural fabric.
Lee: You have passion for art. What drove this passion and why is it important to you? What type of art do you specialize and how would you describe it?
N’Namdi: I first began collecting during the latter part of my sophomore year of college. It had more to do with a commitment to culture and the preservation of culture than the art. We have a diverse stable of artists and exhibitions, and we do a lot of exhibitions with Detroit artists. But we are known as the home of African-American Abstract Masters.
Lee: And yet, you’ve stayed in Detroit to hone your craft and develop it. Why did you decide to stay here as opposed to going elsewhere?
N’Namdi: I have been part of the Detroit art scene for 33 years, with galleries in Detroit and Birmingham, Mich. I also have operated galleries in Chicago and New York during that time. Currently, my focus is on the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in the Sugar Hill Arts District in Midtown Detroit.
Lee: When it comes to artistic creativity and value, how does Detroit compare to other cities?
N’Namdi: Detroit is one of the major tiers for the production and exhibition of art. We happen to have our beloved DIA, which is one of the major encyclopedic institutions in the country. Along with that, the N’Namdi Gallery is probably the oldest African-American gallery in the country. After New York City, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Detroit is in that next tier of showcasing and exhibiting art.
Lee: What were/are your most significant business challenges and how did you overcome them?
N’Namdi: I don’t look at the challenges of business first. I concentrate on what I want to do. Moving my gallery from Detroit to Birmingham was a monumental task because the rent climbed from $750/month in Detroit for 3,000 square feet to $3,000/month for 2,000 square feet.
And, by the way, that was in 1989. Relocating back to Detroit, there were a lot of complexities to it. We decided to establish an art center, as opposed to remaining a gallery. The challenge of funding the renovation of the building was complex and took longer than expected.
Lee: You’ve received several grants. How did these grants assist you in growing your business?
N’Namdi: Our first grant was awarded to us by the NEI (New Economy Initiative), which was a construction grant to help build out our courtyards on both sides of the building here in Midtown. We were then able to provide broader services and assist the restaurant, Seva, in its expansion to Detroit.
And the Kresge/Erb grant has facilitated strategic planning for long-term projects, which has been extremely helpful in transitioning from a for-profit business to a nonprofit. The Knight Foundation has helped us to expand in our programming, as a social catalyst through creative placemaking with the N’Namdi Atelier and the Quarter Pop Arts Incubator. Both of these grants are there to enable us to give broader services in Detroit’s creative sector.
Lee: What advice would you give to upstart artists and, for that matter, entrepreneurs?
N’Namdi: Enroll in the Atelier (in conjunction with the Center for Contemporary Art) to learn the business of art because it allows you to engage in business development in the field of art, which is much needed, as an entrepreneur or as an artist.
Lee: You have an impressive client list, which includes the Detroit Institute of Arts, Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, et al. What was your strategic approach for penetrating these great institutions?
N’Namdi: We didn’t necessarily have a strategic plan. We became recognized as an organization that handled very high quality art, and those institutions began to look to us for our expertise.
Lee: What else is new with the Center for Contemporary Art?
N’Namdi: The N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art In the Center we have three exhibition spaces, the Black Box performance space, vegetarian restaurant Seva and opening soon, Ima, a contemporary art boutique. And we’re planning to open in summer 2015 an after-work watering hole called Wine Down. We also are expanding our development of the West End Gallery District in the Grand River/Rosa Parks area through Knight Foundation grants.