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I was honored to be one of the 200 or so members of the Detroit art community who celebrated Joy Hakanson Colby on July 11 at Lola's in Harmony Park, marking her retirement from The Detroit News after serving as art critic there for 60 years. The depth of Colby's impact on the Detroit art scene was evidenced by the mere fact of who showed up to offer her best wishes as she embarks on the next chapter in her life. The gathering was "completely 'A' list" as former Cranbrook sculptor-in-residence Michael Hall put it, as he made a sweeping gesture with his hand from a perch at the crowded bar.
Colby herself was the epitome of the artworld doyenne, accepting the tribute being lavished upon her with an aura of serenity worthy of the Dalai Lama. Dressed in an oriental-style silk jacket of saffron (the Buddhist color of spiritual tranquility), black slacks, and black flats, and a large white flower pinned to her left shoulder, she looked every bit the aesthetic sage as she peered owlishly at well-wishers through her signature oversize-lens glasses. She was unruffled even when Detroit Institute of Arts Director Graham Beal, who started off the speeches, cloddishly said not once but several times that he wasn't mentioned in a recent Metro Times article Colby wrote looking back on her remarkable career. (In fact, there’s a whole paragraph on Beal’s directorship.)
The evening was bittersweet. On the one hand, it was wonderful to have the feeling of community one rarely gets in Detroit these days. Seeing Bob Wilbert, John Piet, Stephen Goodfellow, Tyree Guyton, Niagara, et. al. in the same room was a happily surreal experience of Motor City artworlds colliding. Add to that collectors Gil and Lila Silverman, Frank and Shirley Piku, and Marc Schwartz, plus the blast-from-the-past of erstwhile Xochipilli Gallery Director Mary Wright coming out of hiding to take her place alongside one-time Birmingham neighbors Ray Fleming, Susanne Hilberry, and Corrine Lemberg. Then there was the younger set, DetroitArtsBlogger Ann Gordon and Metro Times Arts Editor Rebecca Mazzei. Also significant was the presence of people like Lester Johnson, Gilda Snowden, and Anita Bates, a testament to Colby's leadership, with her coverage of artists of color, in working to heal the near mortal wound racism has inflicted on Detroit.
And yet on the other hand, there was the underlying anxiety over an era coming to an end and what that might portend for those left in the bleak aftermath. (And that's before factoring in that Dick Cheney still runs the country.) In the last paragraph of her Metro Times article, Colby grimly, but no doubt accurately, observes that no one is ever again likely to have the opportunity to do what she's done during her time covering the art scene in Detroit. The Detroit News has a listing on JournalismJobs.com soliciting for a "fine arts writer," but that person will cover classical music, theater, dance, and opera in addition to the visual arts. Setting aside the implicit elitism built into that beat (something Colby herself certainly wouldn't countenance), it means that there won't be the kind of in-depth coverage of the art scene as in years gone by.
This is indeed a tragedy. I remember being a teenager in a working-class suburb of Detroit, picking up my family's copy of The News one Sunday, and seeing a huge spread about a group of artists who lived and worked someplace near downtown called the Cass Corridor. Through adolescent eyes I got a glimpse of the fact that art wasn't necessarily something old and fragile to be preserved in some musty museum and worshipped from behind a velvet rope. It was something the people in those photos, who lived in my very own town, actually did, probably even as I was sitting there reading about them. Even more important, it was something that I—traumatized as I was by having seen Fredrick Edwin Church's Cotapaxi a few years earlier and thinking I could never paint like that and should just give up now—could see myself doing. What are the chances of that happening to some other budding young talent with the flimsy "lifestyle" section of today's paper, filled as it is with celebrity gossip and reviews of video games?
To be fair, this isn't just Detroit's problem. All around the country, newspapers are cutting back local coverage of the visual arts, of all of the arts for that matter, in pursuit of higher profits squeezed from cost-cutting measures that include spreading newsroom staff (known to bean counters as "full-time equivalents" or FTEs) as thinly as possible. It's simply more economical to own a chain of newspapers and drop articles from around the network into the various "newsholes" (those pesky empty spaces between the ads). That's also why cultural commodities like CDs and DVDs, TV programs, and movies, which are nationally distributed, are more likely to be covered than local art shows. All the same, it's ironic because local art shows are something local media by default have an exclusive on—it's damned unlikely anyone is coming from New York or LA to review Douglas Semivan's upcoming show at Madonna University in Livonia, no matter how good it might be.
It's also important to recognize that the way media are consumed has changed. It's no secret that newspaper circulation has been declining for years, hence the decision to cut staff in an effort to outpace diminishing advertising and subscription revenues. It's also true that the readership demographics of most newspapers are increasingly skewing upward. Although there were a few youngsters at the Colby soiree, most of the people were of the "getting-long-in-the-tooth" persuasion, including me. I'm sure the same holds for the larger community that knows Colby's writing. More and more, younger people are turning to alternative media, like the Internet, to get the information they need. That's not something to be bemoaned so much as accepted and acted upon. (That said I wish to hell someone would show me how to make money at it.)
That's where something like TheDetroiter.com comes in. Right now, it's where the most in-depth coverage of the Detroit art scene is to be found. It's where our community, beleaguered as it is, seems to be converging. While it's entirely fitting that we look back in appreciation at what Joy Colby has done (and it's a lot to be sure), it's just as essential that we look to the future. The best way to honor Colby's legacy is to keep working at that which she so obviously cares about and to move the cause forward by any and all means at hand. And I bet if you were to ask her, she'd be the first to agree.