DCA thrives under new executive director
By Paula Neuman
The historic, 20,000-square-foot building that houses the Downriver Council for the Arts is a rabbits’ warren of rooms, hallways, nooks, crannies and hidden hidey holes of all sizes.
Thanks to the DCA’s executive director, Erin Suess, vibrant new life is starting to buzz all through the three floors of the stately, unconventional building at 81 Chestnut St. in Wyandotte.
Her No. 1 goal when she was hired three years ago, Suess said, was “just breathing life into this building — having it busy and artists creating everywhere and things going on.”
And that’s exactly what she’s done, although it’s an ongoing venture.
The structure today is full of artists at work in rented studio spaces, galleries of ever-changing art exhibits, classrooms full of students, and even a large commercial kitchen in use by artisan chocolatier Jamie LeBouf, a Lincoln Park native. Concerts, poetry readings, fashion shows and lectures often are in progress, and a gift shop offers original creations for sale.
An expanded theater on the third floor and a large studio space located off the balcony area is used by the Downriver Detroit Student Film Consortium. One small rented studio is home to podcasters. That space also offers a large “green room” for people waiting to be interviewed by Podbros Network, the creation of Downriver “Podfather” John Bruske.
The building, owned by the city of Wyandotte since 2008 and renamed the James R. DeSana Center for Arts and Culture when the DCA took it over in 2010, was built in 1911 by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and then bought by the Fraternal Order of Free and Accepted Masons in 1943, who kept their secrets there for 50 years.
Suess, with the help of a few volunteers, has been cleaning out and revitalizing the structure’s many ramshackle spaces for the last three years, and making the place a haven for artists in all media. She and her helpers — especially filmmaker Scott Galeski of Wyandotte, founder and director of the student film group, and a DCA board member; and Andy Chorkey of Wyandotte, DCA resident artist and musician — have pulled up carpets to reveal wood floors, dry-walled, painted, paneled, plastered and renovated. That work, too, is an ongoing venture.
“I keep expecting to unearth something really cool one of these days,” Suess said, with a laugh.
Chorkey built out the stage in the theater about 4 more feet, she said, and also built a sound booth.
“He does good work,” Suess said. “Scott and Andy did all the physical labor” to upgrade the theater.
The Downriver Council for the Arts Indie Art Fair, held March 8-9 at the James R. DeSana Center for Arts and Culture, was a three-floor art fest jam-packed into the century old arts center featuring the work of independent makers, artists, and diy’ers. Scores of artists in different disciplines filled the quirky nooks and crannies and spaces in the old building that was once home to the Odd Fellows and then the Masons.
The Downriver Council for the Arts Indie Art Fair, held March 8-9 at the James R. DeSana Center for Arts and Culture, was a three-floor art fest jam-packed into the century old arts center featuring the work of independent makers, artists, and diy’ers. Scores of artists in different disciplines filled the quirky nooks and crannies and spaces in the old building that was once home to the Odd Fellows and then the Masons.Much of the work took place during the Christmas holiday break of 2017, when the DCA was closed, and the end result included an extra 600 or more square feet added to the theater, where Odd Fellows and Masons once held ceremonies.
“We were putting in 17 hours a day,” Suess said.
What’s needed now is railings for the balcony to bring it up to code, and more brick work and tuck-pointing, so the theater won’t have leaks when it rains.
“The city is getting bids for that,” she said. “I’m so grateful.”
Wyandotte artist Joseph Hosler was one of the first to rent a space in the DCA’s labyrinth-like building.
“My studio is in the back stairwell,” he said in a recent DCA social media interview. “I’m always in my studio painting, splashing paint or working on the studio itself.”
Grosse Ile artist Donna Boisseau Hinson gave up her island studio to nab a space at the DCA, where she also teaches classes for children and adults. Michael Mullen of Grosse Ile has a studio there, where he focuses on drawing and printmaking. He’s also a musician who plays guitar, mountain dulcimer and Celtic harp, and his concerts at the DCA draw fans.
Tim Porter of Southgate, also known as Tim Porter McKeenn, often can be found painting as he listens to music in his DCA studio. His wife, artist Michelle Porter, is a DCA board member. Allen Park artist Martine MacDonald has a DCA studio, and Wyandotte artists Karen St. Martin and Jan Dunbar share a studio space. Dunbar is president of the DCA board. Dave Maran of Wyandotte uses his DCA studio to build ukuleles.
“Having resident artists is just amazing,” said Suess, who is an artist and photographer herself and also has 20 years of experience as an art director and as a multimedia designer for the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press.
Suess, who puts in 16-hour work days, also has been hard at work seeking grants; updating the DCA website (www.downriverarts.org) to reflect everything that’s going on; planning and developing exhibits, events and classes; staying in touch with community groups; and attending seminars and workshops at the Southeast Michigan cohort of Arts Leaders as Cultural Innovators, a leadership development program presented by Culture Source.
She was excited that the DCA was among the 20 groups chosen for that program, which usually is limited to organizations with budgets of more than $500,000.
“It’s a national program and this is first time they are doing it in Detroit,” she said. “It’s kind of a big deal because the DCA only has an annual budget of about $150,000, and only myself and a part-time secretary, but they accepted us!”
The program is intensive and invigorating, she said.
April’s DCA calendar includes a host of art lessons for all ages and also yoga, sewing, and an artists’ meditation session. Upcoming events include an artists’ rummage sale open to the public. Last month’s Indie Art Fair drew crowds of art lovers to the building where so much is going on.
The nonprofit DCA, founded in 1978, serves 21 communities. Visit downriverarts.org to learn more about studio space, classes, and upcoming events.