With vision and smart gambling instincts, Detroiter Gil Silverman secured a place in art history

Detroit was home to some legendary art collectors. Eleanor and Edsel Ford. Robert Tannahill (Eleanor’s and J.L. Hudson’s nephew). W. Hawkins Ferry (heir to the Ferry-Morse Seed Company). Shopping mall magnate Al Taubman. All helped turn the Detroit Institute of Arts into one of the best encyclopedic art museums in the country.

We lost another great collector last month, real estate developer Gilbert Silverman. Though less well known, Gil and wife Lila discovered, and bought everything they could of, a fledgling art movement, Fluxus. This somewhat baffling, anti-art, anti-commercial sensibililty influenced 20th c. art history. In the 2000s, ARTnews listed the Silvermans, of Bloomfield Hills, MI, among the world’s top 200 collectors. Their collection comprised drawings and notes by Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Ray Johnson, George Maciunas and many more. Crains Detroit Business published a full obituary in June.

Detroit art critic Vince Carducci wrote a recent blog on the Silvermans, picked up by the Huffington post (Gilbert Silverman: In Memoriam). Vince tells a story about an artwork he created which he ripped off from a Christie’s catalogue. Gil bought it for an unheard of sum.

Gil later told Vince, “I must be the only asshole in Detroit who would pay what I did for that piece.”

Vince said he bought a stereo with the unexpected windfall. “You’ll be happy to know there’s a card on top that reads ‘Gift of Lila and Gilbert Silverman.’”

I, too, have a Gil Silverman story. It illustrates son Eric’s words at Gil’s funeral, calling his dad “a gentleman and loyal and caring friend.” In 1997, Burton and I traveled with the Silvermans to Egypt. We were part of a group organized by mutual friend Margie Fisher Furman (then Aronow), an Egyptologist. Along with the pyramids, the Sphinx and the Valley of the Kings, our tour bus stopped at a souvenir store known for its pottery. I surveyed the wares but left empty handed.

Back on the bus, I encountered Gil. Had he liked anything? No. But he’d wandered out back where some craftsmen were working. They were using a metal tool. Gil asked one if his tool was for sale. The artisan gave him an odd look but agreed to his offer. Beaming, Gil showed the tool to me. It was beautiful, like a piece of sculpture. I raced back into the shop and out the rear door and purchased a tool of my own.

I showed my acquisition to Gil. Mine was new and lacked the aged patina of the one he’d purchased. I said, “Yours is nicer.”

He handed it to me. “I’ll trade you.”

Gil’s trade sits on a stand in my living room near a clay piece by (ex-Detroit) New York artist Michele Oka Doner. I think about Gil whenever I pass that shelf. As an author of 2 memoirs, I was taught to look for the “telling detail,” the one that reveals someone’s essence. My interaction with Gil that day was a small moment. I’m sure Gil forgot about it. But to me, it epitomized his unconventional instincts and generosity—traits much appreciated in the art world. Just ask Vince Carducci.

I once asked how Gil got interested in Fluxus. “I realized I could corner an entire art movement,” he said.

The story was typical Gil. In 1978, Gil was in Soho, NY. He came upon a man selling blue paper bags on a street corner. The blue matched the shade of a painting Gil had bought 8 years before from a gallery in Tokyo, Japan. The painting, “Sky and Two Pairs of Pants,” was by New York artist Geoffrey Hendricks, who turned out to also be the artist behind the bags.

The bag seller was a friend of artist George Maciunas, who was ill. Maciunas was a founder of Fluxus. Gil agreed to buy all 2 dozen bags for $2 each, but wanted them signed. Hendricks’ brother Jon later became the Silvermans’ curator. Ultimately, the Silvermans donated to MOMA nearly 4000 Fluxus artworks and 4000 more pieces of paper information, which most of us would have thought trash. You’ll find some of the Hendricks pieces the Silvermans’ donated on this page at the MOMA website.

I recently ran into art dealer Lois Cohn, wife of highly regarded senior district judge Avern Cohn. She told me when she decided to open her resale gallery, she mentioned her plan to Gil. She didn’t know where she’d get merchandise, she said. He took her to one of his apartment projects where a number of pieces were stored. Voila. The start of Lois’ inventory. “Gil helped put me in business,” she says. She stayed in business for 30 years.

Soon after our trip, Gil and Lila joined us at our Franklin, MI, home for dinner. I’ve long supported Detroit artists. Burton and I have a fine collection of works by talents now known as first generation Cass Corridor artists. Significant pieces by Gordon Newton, Michael Luchs, Brenda Goodman, Ellen Phelan, Jim Chatelain, Bob Sestok and more.

But Gil didn’t comment on them. Instead, he returned from the powder room where a cabinet displays delicate 18th c. English enamel Battersea boxes I inherited from my grandmother and mother. Most bear little hand-painted historic scenes. Gil asked about them. He said, “Now those I love.”

Over 4 million people live in the greater Detroit area. Gil Silverman was one in a million. Make that one in 4 million.

Thanks, Lila, for your help with this column. Thanks Gil, wherever you are, for your graciousness and gumption. You enriched us.

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6 thoughts on “With vision and smart gambling instincts, Detroiter Gil Silverman secured a place in art history

  1. Paul Silverman

    I really enjoyed this piece on Dad!
    Thank you so much for writing it.

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