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Change is in the air over at College for Creative Studies, where a handful of on-campus galleries are facing a new order under Michelle Perron.

Formerly the Director of CCS’s Center Galleries—as well as Founding Director of Kresge Arts in Detroit (KAID) since its inception in 2008, Perron has stepped away from KAID in order to take up the role as inaugural Director of the newly-formed Office of Exhibitions & Public Programs at CCS. Perron was instrumental in the development and mothering of the KAID program in its first nine years, but feels it has reached a point where she can devote her energies to building something new at CCS. KAID’s continued growth and direction stays in the hands of Director Christina deRoos and Assistant Director Ryan Myers-Johnson. 

RJ2Michelle Perron and Jonathan Rajewski in the Valade Family Gallery“I’ve always seen my role here at CCS being to create experiences—for the students, for the faculty, for the alumni, for the donors, and for the community,” said Perron in an interview with CultureSource at the Valade Family Gallery on the eve of her first opening under the Office of Exhibitions & Public Programs’ auspices. 

“In my previous role of just running Center Galleries and the Woodward Lecture Series, it was always about that, but for a long time, since KAID started, I’ve been wearing all these different hats. And it’s been great, but now the KAID program is at a point where it is a good time for me to be able to pull back from the daily activities there and to be able to start this program at CCS.” 

This new program seeks to create a more unified vision for the multiple on-campus galleries, which includes the college’s main exhibition venues, Center Galleries, located inside the Manoogian Visual Resource Center, and the Valade Family Galley at the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, as well as the the U245 Student Gallery and the Knight Foundation Gallery, as well as mindfully incorporating two of CCS’s ongoing public lecture series—the Woodward Lecture Series and the Toyota Lecture Series, which focuses on design-related topics and is organized by Michelle Cade.

“CCS has always been a cultural anchor in Detroit,” said Perron, “and now by adding new programming, we’re expanding opportunities—for the gallery architecture in the city, and also so CCS can be a more vital part of the art community.” 

The ideas for this new program were seeded roughly three years ago, when Perron, working with Nina Holden, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at CCS, assembled a group of key donors, alums, and community members, to create a kind of think tank looking squarely at the strengths and weaknesses of the CCS program, and identifying ways to create a stronger program and relationship with the surrounding community.

“Other colleges for art and design around the country have these great programs, and I was wanting to up the ante here at CCS,” said Perron. “There’s an interest here in developing a track in the Fine Arts department on curatorial practice, and Office of Exhibitions & Public Programs will be a part of that.” 

Perron also mentioned ideas in development for a docent program, and a student retail venue where students from all of the departments can learn to market and sell the objects that they learn to make as part of CCS’ design-centric curriculum.

“We have a lot of things percolating, but it’s going to take a year or two to put these things in motion,” said Perron. “A lot of the current work is about raising the funds to start doing these sorts of things.”

RJ5The opening volley of programming has a Detroit-centric feel, with the Valade Family Gallery presenting Ray Johnson: The Bob Boxes through October 8th—the largest exhibition of work by native Detroiter, progenitor of mail art and founder of the New York Correspondence School, and art-world insider/outsider Ray Johnson ever to be mounted in his hometown. The show, curated by Jonathan Rajewski, Gallery Coordinator for the Office of Exhibitions & Public Programs, features the contents of a series of 13 boxes that were assembled by Johnson and given to artist and frequent interlocutor, Robert “Bob” Warner. 

“There was a show in 1975 at Gertrude Kasle in the Fisher Building, but that was collages,” said Rajewski, as he ushered me around the exhibition, and described Johnson’s origins. “Ray Johnson is from here—he was born in 1927, and he went to Cass Tech.”

RJ14The contents of the exhibition include a combination of found objects, Johnson’s own art, and a mélange of materials amassed over decades as a repository for the work of other mail artists—Johnson’s live-work space in New York City evidently became a kind of amazing dead letter office for mail art. With items arranged informally on pedestals according to the contents of each box (which are also on display, labeled and numbered by either Johnson or Warner), there is a sense that Johnson obsessively venerated material culture, collecting stray objects on long forays around the city, which he termed “prison walks,” while at the same time having a kind of indifference to it. Noticeably, there are dozens of letters and packages that were sent to Johnson as he gained notoriety as a mail artist that remain entirely unopened. Yet his drive to collect and preserve these objects speaks to his valuation of material culture writ large—extended by Warner’s desire to maintain his friend’s archive—even as it may have overwhelmed him.

“He says in the movie, ‘I can’t even keep up with it all anymore,’” said Rajewski, referring to roughly seven hours of documentary footage by the documentarian Nick Maravell, who followed Johnson exhaustively from 1987-1988. “The Ray Johnson Videos,” which is a fascinating and candid look at the life of the artist, plays in a screening room adjacent to the main gallery, and is one of the only venues where it may be seen in its entirety.

The next show at the Valade, from October 15th through November 12th, will be We See, a four-person show of contemporary photography created around Detroit in the last four years. Artists Salwan Georges, Dave Jordano, Vanessa Miller, and Rashaun Rucker are each prodigious documentarians of Detroit citizens and environs, and the exhibition seeks to present a more balanced vision of Detroit that avoids the clichéd tropes of ruin porn and decay. 

Over at Center Galleries, Perron and Rajewski continue their local focus with De Facto Detroit: Selections from the N’Namdi Collection, which opens September 17th and runs through October 22nd, and highlights Detroit artists in noted collector George N’Namdi’s renowned art collection. 

As Perron strives to expand the arts opportunities for the Detroit arts community, the fall season’s first Woodward Lecture invites New York Times art critic Holland Cotter on October 5th, the start of what looks to be a bold new chapter for Michelle Perron and CCS!RJ1

All images courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp 

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