Via a winding path, Michelle Perron makes a difference in the Detroit art world


Michelle Perron and her mother.

“Every few years I like to reinvent myself, Michelle says.

That’s an understatement.

This art world dynamo has taken advantage of contacts, braved new territory, embraced opportunities, and become a catalyst, an advocate and a game changer.

Michelle grew up with 4 brothers. Her mom, Anne Perron Spivak, was a mover and shaker for contemporary art at the DIA. With flawless make up and flaming red coiffure, she hung out with my friend, the irreverent art enthusiast, collector and publisher Anne MacDonald Manoogian Walker. Together, circa 1970, they brought the play “Hair” to a small Detroit theater for a fundraiser. (I’ll never forget my shock at seeing an entire cast on stage, naked.)

Michelle grew up in Grosse Pointe, MI, amid contemporary artworks by Color Field and Pop greats like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns to Detroit’s Cass Corridor legends like Gordon Newton and Michael Luchs. And among renowned Detroit collectors including Lydia Winston Malbin (my cousin) and interior designer Florence Barron. Michelle dreamed of becoming an artist. After a couple of student art classes at Ohio Wesleyan U., Michelle says she “realized I wasn’t an artist.” She switched to art history.

After college, Michelle worked in development for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. (Her well-connected mom knew board members.) Michelle researched prospective donors. In pre-Internet days, she relied on the library, newspaper archives and divorce records. “It was a crash course in arts fundraising that would serve me throughout my career.”


Click on this image to learn more about Detroit’s growing community of artists at the Center for Creative Studies website.

In the mid-1980s, the Michigan Gallery near Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium hired Michelle as director. “It was a shoestring operation, an alternative space. Artists ran exhibitions. The building was dilapidated. It snowed in my office in winter. But it was complete immersion in the Detroit art scene, a love affair.” When MI Gov. John Engler cut state arts funding, Michelle was laid off.

In 1990, then novice (today successful) gallerist, David Klein, was opening a Detroit branch of legendary NY dealer Ivan Karp’s OK Harris Gallery. Klein hired Michelle as an assistant director. “On opening night, hundreds of people came.” But Michelle was in her 20s, “partying and repeatedly late to work.” After a year, she was fired.

“It was 1991. There was no more arts funding. With my tail between my legs, I started networking, calling everyone I knew.” She heard Detroit’s renowned Nederlander-owned Fisher Theater needed someone in p.r. With no p.r. experience, Michelle morphed again. In offices in the basement of the Masonic Temple (another fine old Detroit theater), “I learned to pitch stories and find hooks.”

Longing to bite the Big Apple, she signed up for a publication listing jobs for cultural organizations. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company needed a fundraiser. She researched the company, taped notes to the wall, and survived a 2 hour phone interview. (“My uncle Bill told me to stand whenever you’re on an important phone call, so I stood for the entire 2 hours.”) After, dressed in high heels and a suit, she flew to NY for more interviews. And a thumbs up.

In the cab to the airport, she checked out apartments in the Village Voice. “Oh my God!” she thought. “New York!”

There she met and worked with “the most incredible people.” They included composer/artist John Cage and artist Robert Rauschenberg. For annual benefit art sales of works donated by artists, she met art stars like Louise Bourgeois and Ellsworth Kelly. She visited their studios to pick up donations. Roy Lichtenstein waved at her daily as he walked past her office window to lunch at Florent. She served Perrier to Jasper Johns when he visited.

“It was magical. I learned so much and saw so much dance. I became a modern dance snob.”

Strife arose between dancers and management. Dancers threatened to walk. The exec director was forced out. Her “brilliant” boss left. She became director of development—a post she held for 3 years.

But she missed the visual arts. Again she “started talking to everybody.”

A mutual friend and one time Detroiter, artist Michele Oka Doner, heard of a gallery to open in Soho, Art et Industrie. Michelle was hired as Associate Director and got busy expediting the opening. “Having 4 brothers teaches you how to fight. I learned how to navigate city offices and pull permits.” The gallery showed Memphis Group furniture from Italy and light and space works by artists like Larry Bell. It had the only outdoor sculpture garden in Soho.

“I lived in a 300-square-foot shoebox apartment and loved it.”

But after 7 years of Manhattan art world wages, she began to tire of the struggle. (“Some days I had to choose between buying a subway token or a slice of pizza for dinner.”) She missed driving a car. At 34, she decided to “do something else.” Putting her belongings in storage, she drove across country in a car she named “Wheel Estate.” Friends and family along the way provided meals, shelter and temporary jobs. She visited monumental earth art projects by Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and Walter DeMaria. She made pilgrimages to what she calls “art Meccas” like Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa, TX.

“I reached LA completely broke.”

Which brings us to her present role. Kind of.

Michelle missed home. The Detroit art scene was gaining traction. “Unlike the New York art world where you’re just a number, in Detroit, I’d been part of something. I believed I could make a difference.”

Moving in with her mom, she again began calling everyone she knew. Detroit artist Aris Koutroulis told her Dennis Nawrocki (my friend and long time fellow art supporter) was retiring as director of the College for Creative Studies Center Galleries. Michelle was hired in late 1998. She moved the gallery from a nearby hotel to the CCS campus.


Click this image to learn more about Kresge Arts in Detroit.

Michelle continues to make a meaningful difference in Detroit. In her 18 years at CCS, she’s developed a strong exhibition program. She’s coordinated the College’s Woodward Lecture Series, which brings famous artists, critics and curators to the school to work with students and give public talks (John Chamberlain, Elizabeth Murray, Ed Ruscha, etc.). 8 years ago, she created the Kresge Arts in Detroit program at CCS, which administers the Kresge Artists Fellowships and the Kresge Eminent Artist Awards. Combined, they give half a million dollars to Detroit artists each year.

And this dervish is still whirling. Michelle this year established a new Office of Exhibitions & Public Programs at CCS. It will expand the College’s public offerings and create new professional development programs for art students.

The Detroit art scene is thriving. The New York Times last year reported, “Artists have flocked to cheap rents and have converted shuttered storefronts and abandoned buildings into studio spaces and galleries as private money has poured into the local scene.” I’ve supported Detroit artists since 1977 when I bought a Michael Luchs assemblage to celebrate Burton’s and my 10th anniversary. Back then my band of fellow supporters was pretty puny. I never thought I’d live to see the artistic action that’s occurring here now.

With the dedication of art enthusiasts like Michelle and places like CCS, it’s onward and upward. I’m loving the ride. Bravo, Michelle.

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6 thoughts on “Via a winding path, Michelle Perron makes a difference in the Detroit art world

  1. Suzy Farbman Post author

    as emailed from Anne MacDonald
    I loved the article. What a girl. It is so good that the next generation is out there involved.

  2. Suzy Farbman Post author

    Thanks, Michelle, for the comment. And for all you do. Your energy and range are amazing. Detroit is blessed to have you.

  3. Suzy Farbman Post author

    Thanks, Bob. True praise from a true artist who’s been making a difference in Detroit for decades. Thanks for your comment and for making the D so much livelier through your work and your sculpture garden.

  4. Robert sestok

    Detroit has a shining star in Michelle Perron
    She radiates the energy we need to
    Complete our tasks. her vision is deep
    And wide and demands our attention.
    I truly believe she has many more
    Experiences to share with our community
    And the world. Bravo Michelle

Comments are closed.