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Posted on Mon, Dec 7, 2009 : 5:36 a.m.

University art galleries try to bridge the town-gown gap

By Jennifer Eberbach


Washtenaw Community College employee Regina Tounsel admires the work of U-M professor and artist Jim Cogswell, on display at WCC's GalleryOne.

Cheri Smith

A lot of people know the phrase "town-gown gap," which can be described as all of the little points of contention and psychological divides that exist between a university and a local community. You may even hear people talking about it in Ann Arbor. However, Ann Arbor’s university art galleries have found some success bridging this gap.

There is no mistaking that university art departments have an impact on what is available in the Ann Arbor art scene at large. The University of Michigan School of Art & Design is branched out, with off-campus locations in downtown Ann Arbor and downtown Detroit, in additional to its galleries inside the school. Washtenaw Community College’s GalleryOne draws in just as many members of the general public as students, faculty, and staff. Ann Arbor also has Concordia University’s Kreft Center Gallery, and Eastern Michigan University’s Art Department is not far down the road. The University of Michigan also has many other art offerings, including exhibitions at the Residential College, student curated shows at the Warren Robbins Gallery, and the time-based art-oriented Play Gallery. This list does not even begin to touch upon the wide range of university museums in the area, including the recently redesigned University of Michigan Museum of Art.

U-M Art & Design gallery director Mark Nielsen is in charge of the Jean Paul Slusser Gallery, located in the Art & Architecture building on North Campus, as well as Work: Ann Arbor, the school’s State Street venue, which primarily exhibits undergraduate work.

“Slusser is a little more professional, in the traditional sense of a museum-quality space,” he explains. The space shows annual faculty, student and alumni exhibitions, and features a nationally known “name draw” artist annually.

According to Nielsen, the gallery has also “opened up the programming a little bit to include more members of the Art & Design community and the community at large,” which he credits to the school’s exhibition proposal system. The crux of the proposal system is that “the educational impetus still has to come from Art & Design; in other words, the idea has to come from a graduate student or a faculty member. If it’s someone from the outside that has an idea, then they have to work with a student or faculty member,” he explains. “Partnering students, faculty and people from the outside gets students and faculty involved with people in the community and people in other academic departments, as well,” he says.

Nielsen also sees a lot of value in “branching out to other disciplines,” within the university system, as well. The university gallery space can be “a place where researchers or scientists working in different fields can have a public forum, that goes beyond their peers. Art doesn’t really have any ground rules. I think these other disciplines can meet in this sort of netherworld of art, and they have the freedom to interact and exchange in ways that they don’t in a more formalized situation,” he says.


Eastern Michigan University student Alexandra Dietz looks at "Cabinet of Curiosity" by U-M Art and Design student Stephanie Schutte at Work Gallery on State Street.

Angela Cesere |

Work: Ann Arbor gives Art & Design undergraduate students an exhibition space off campus, where they can get exposure beyond the shelter of the classroom and art building. “The downtown gallery is at a really good location, because State Street is right on the dividing line between campus and the Ann Arbor community. It’s really the town-gown gap, in a sense. We get a lot of walk-in traffic at that gallery,” Nielsen explains.

When U-M Art & Design’s downtown Detroit extension, Work: Detroit, was first established, “it was known right away that this was established to act as a connector to the Detroit community,” explains gallery director Stephen Schudlich, who guessed that about 80 percent of Work: Detroit’s audience comes from the Detroit community. The gallery shows work created by artists from all over the world and many artists from the Detroit community, on top of hosting U-M Art & Design shows.

The gallery’s location in downtown Detroit’s cultural center makes it as much a part of Detroit’s art scene as a part of the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor. “It’s not a joke, because it’s true. We tell people when they are standing in the Work: Detroit space, they are in Ann Arbor. They are a part of Art & Design. In that respect, there’s this level of connection. But it is also located in Detroit. I walk with one foot in both places,” Schudlich says.

Although Work Detroit is somewhat distant from Ann Arbor, it gives U-M Art & Design graduate students a unique opportunity that “doesn’t exist at many other universities,” Schudlich says. “Here is a formal venue that can be dedicated to a show that you curate in a gallery in downtown Detroit,” he explains.

Gallery director Anne Rubin reports that attendance at Washtenaw Community College’s GalleryOne is split down the middle — half of the gallery’s visitors come from the college and half from the community at large. “I feel comfortable with the level of attendance that we get from the outside,” she says.

According to Rubin, some of GalleryOne’s success drawing people in from the community at large has been through widespread promotions; effective inter-college publicity that draws in students, faculty and staff from across Washtenaw Community College’s departments; and educational offerings that are free and open to the public, including lectures and workshops. Rubin reports, “We have a really good turnout from the public at our workshops,” and she sees a demand for that type of educational offering in the greater Ann Arbor community.

As a university gallery, GalleryOne’s “focus is teaching and education,” according to Rubin. “In that way, it’s very academic. We want people to walk away from the shows each year with some increased understanding of the concepts that we were discussing that year,” she explains. However, the gallery’s high level of public attendance exemplifies how university galleries can educate a population that extends far beyond students and faculty. “Our purpose is educational, for everyone,” she concludes.

U-M School of Art & Design Play Gallery director Katherine Weider explains, “I don’t see any conflict between the university and the community. Sometimes I hear people talking about it, but in my experience, I see a lot of faculty members taking their students out into the community for classes,” as well as participating in community-based projects and city-wide events. The Play Gallery, which focuses on time-based art and has a strong web and public media component, is currently undergoing restructuring and redesign. All details about Play Gallery’s redesign are forthcoming.

Play Gallery has created original art projects that require the participation and creativity of the public at large. For example, their Animation Station, which has appeared at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Ann Arbor Art Fair, Neutral Zone and Shadow Art Fair, allows users to add their own stop-motion animations to the station’s video loop. Weider explains, “When we took it on tour, it was really interesting to see what is in different population’s minds and how they use it.” Play Gallery is currently working on an updated version of Animation Station that “we are thinking of it as a traveling device that collects the ‘mind-streams’ from different venues and populations,” she explains.

Animation Station at last year's Ann Arbor Art Fair:

In many ways, academic galleries exist to support student and faculty and enrich their educational experience within the university system. Ann Arbor’s academic art institutions are also affecting visual discourse on a greater, community-wide scale.

Jennifer Eberbach is a free-lance writer who covers art for



Fri, Dec 3, 2010 : 8:03 p.m.

Any knows that to see real art, you have to go to the UMMA or DIA. And it couldn't be any more convenient for students to visit the superior art of the UMMA

Elaine Sims

Sun, Dec 13, 2009 : 12:07 p.m.

Your excellent article missed one large area in which town and gown meet everyday in the arts, on the order of 10,000 people a day, in the U-M Health System. Nine rotating exhibit galleries, weekly performances, bedside music & art programs and a symphony orchestra, are yet another way Ann Arbor is bridging the town-gown gap 365 days a year. The music and arts program of the U-M Health System is called Gifts of Art; more info is available on their website: It is a well-kept secret outside the Health System, but has for nearly 24 years been bringing the more arts to more people than any other venue in Ann Arbor. Elaine Sims Director, UMHS Gifts of Art program