The Flint Art Scene
By James D. Draper
If you were to draw a straight line from the Flint Institute of Arts on East Kearsley Street in the Flint Cultural Center area to Kettering University at the corner of University and Chevrolet avenues, you would find it to measure 5,777 feet or just slightly over a mile. Now, spin that line to create a circle. Inside that circle, there are at least 10 different museums and galleries with subjects ranging from Flint’s historic love affair with the automobile and the founding home of General Motors, to world-class art and much more.
Let’s take a tour.
Flint Institute of Arts 1120 E. Kearsley Street
We start with the big daddy of them all, the Flint Institute of Arts in the DeWaters Art Center. Founded in 1928, the FIA is the second-largest art museum in Michigan. It offers exhibitions, interpretive programs, film screenings, lectures, family events and educational outreach programs. It has one of the largest museum art schools in the nation, hence its “institute” designation. It houses an extensive collection of American art representing major artists and artistic movements from the 16th to 21st centuries, including significant works by John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Alexander Calder, and Romare Bearden.More than 160,000 people visit the FIA galleries each year. The FIA is currently finishing up a 1 ½-year project that will add new glass and ceramic galleries and new sculpture and glass studios. The FIA is supported in its mission by two auxiliary groups. The Founders Society sponsors the annual First Frost Arts & Fine Crafts Fair the first weekend in November, as well as other activities and events. The Friends of Modern Art (FOMA) hosted its 50th Flint Art Fair on the grounds of the Cultural Center in June 2017. FOMA also sponsors the FIA’s well-regarded film series that runs September through May each year. There is an admission charge for non-members, although admission is free on Saturdays courtesy of Huntington Bank.
Alfred P Sloan Museum 1221 E. Kearsley Street
Across East Kearsley Street from the FIA is the Sloan Museum, named in honor of longtime General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan. The Sloan specializes in the history of Genesee County and the Flint area, with special interest in the rise and decline of the local auto industry. The museum contains galleries with permanent and rotating exhibits. Permanent exhibits include a gallery dedicated to the Flint Sit-Down Strike in 1936-37 that spurred the recognition of the UAW by major car manufacturers. Other galleries display pieces from the Sloan/Longway automotive collection, including horse-drawn wagons, carriages, and cars such as the one made by Billy Durant’s short-lived Durant Motors. Other exhibits feature local memorabilia, such as neon signs from local meeting places and businesses, including Hamady Bros. grocery stores. Longtime Flint residents still like to refer to brown paper grocery sacks as “Hamady bags.” There is an admission charge, which also includes entry to the Buick Automotive Gallery.
Buick Automotive Gallery 303 Walnut Street
The Buick Gallery is a short walk east from the Sloan to Walnut Street in the Cultural Center. It is an annex exhibit space, displaying more than 25 classic and concept Buicks, Chevrolets and other locally built vehicles from Sloan’s collection. Regular feature cars exhibited include five concept cars designed by Buick: a 1951 XP-300, a 1954 Wildcat II, a 1956 Centurion, a 1963 Silver Arrow I and a 1977 Phantom. A Hellcat Tank Destroyer built by Buick during World War II is also on display. The Buick Gallery is usually open Friday through Sunday.
Whaley Historic House Museum 624 E. Kearsley Street
West along Kearsley Street and just out of the Flint Cultural Center area is the Whaley Historic House Museum.The Whaley House was the former home of Robert J. Whaley and his family, who moved into the house in 1886. Robert Whaley was the Citizens Bank President who gave Billy Durant a $2,000 loan to start a company that ultimately became General Motors. The Whaley House now stands as a Gilded Age museum and an important piece of Flint history illustrating a traditional Victorian-style home. Closed for more than two years, the museum is looking forward to reopening this spring, after extensive repairs to fix damage from a fire in November 2015.
Art at the Market 300 E. First Street
A short distance away on First Street is the New Flint Farmers’ Market which opened to rave reviews and enthusiastic crowds in 2014. One of the long-time art groups that came with it from the old farmers’ market location is Art at the Market. It is a unique gallery with more than 30 artists. Art at the Market is a non-profit organization solely operated by the artists and features ever-changing original artwork and gift ideas. The gallery is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
Buckham Gallery 134 W. Second Street
Shift one street over to Second Street and walk a block west of Saginaw Street and you will find the Buckham Gallery. A second story walk-up, the digs are by no means fancy, but they do have gravitas. The Buckham Fine Arts Project was founded in 1983 by a group of Flint-area artists, who saw a need for a local exhibition and performance venue. Then and now they wanted to present contemporary art in all media types, featuring works and concepts not provided by other organizations in the area. Buckham presented its first exhibition in May 1984 and has had more than 200 exhibitions since. Buckham is open Thursday through Saturday. There is no admission charge.
Greater Flint Arts Council 816 Saginaw Street
Backtrack a block back to Saginaw Street and head south toward Court Street. At 816 Saginaw Street you’ll find the old three-story Peerless Mattress building, notable for the Vernors soda mural that covers the entire north side of the building. It’s now the home of the Greater Flint Arts Council. Besides grant coordination for artistic endeavors, GFAC is primarily known for organizing and promoting the Second Friday Artwalk. This year-round program is a collaboration of more than 20 businesses and cultural organizations in downtown Flint. Open house receptions at various facilities on the second Friday of each month promote the wide diversity of art that Flint has to offer. GFAC introduces a new art exhibition at its second Friday event each month. Many of the pieces are for sale. GFAC also founded the Cool City Art Auction, featuring silent auctions of original art with multiple organizations and locations in downtown Flint each spring. For the past twelve years GFAC also has produced the Flint Jazz Festival, featuring performances by local, regional, and international jazz musicians. GFAC is open to the general public Monday through Friday. There is no admission charge.
Mott-Warsh Collection 815 Saginaw Street
The Mott-Warsh Collection is across the street from GFAC on the northeast corner of Court and Saginaw streets. It is a private collection of art created by artists of the African diaspora. Maryanne Mott and her late husband, Herman Warsh, initiated the Mott-Warsh collection in 2001 as a way to provide fine art to a broader audience in Flint and beyond. With a focus on art produced since 1940, the Mott-Warsh Collection contains work by over 125 artists covering a range of media from drawing to painting, prints to photography and mixed media to sculpture. Works by 20th-century masters, such as Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett, and 21st century innovators, Wangechi Mutu and Kehinde Wiley, are included in the collection. The collection is usually open during the Second Friday Artwalk. There is no admission charge.
Flint Children’s Museum 1602 University Avenue
Out of downtown Flint, you’ll find the Flint Children’s Museum on University Avenue between Atwood Stadium and Kettering University. The museum was inspired by local educator Mary Newman, after she visited a similar facility in Washington D.C. It started as a hands-on antiques and crafts exhibit for children at Sloan Museum in 1980 and by 1986, the museum moved to its first permanent location at NorthBank Center in downtown Flint. In 1993, the museum’s current home was made available to them by Kettering University through a long-term lease. Some of the educational hands-on exhibits for children include Mr. Bones (showing how our skeletons work), Sproutside (a natural, outdoor learning area), Center Stage (where young performers act out anything they imagine), and Our Town (where kids can shop for groceries or visit Fractions Pizza Parlor). There is an admission charge.
Humanities Art Center
Kettering University Academic Building 1700 University Avenue
We conclude our tour of the Flint art scene at the Kettering University Academic Building. It is just a short block up from the Flint Children’s Museum on University Avenue and just a little over a mile as the crow flies from where we started. Kettering University and I have some history. Its previous incarnation was as General Motors Institute, an engineering school. I graduated from GMI with a degree in engineering in 1969. Dare I say that the Humanities Art Center, located on the fourth floor in the Humanities wing, was not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye back then? No longer does everything have to be either a right angle or a straight line. The Humanities Art Center is a beautiful facility. It features multiple world-class exhibits and collections that exemplify the craftsmanship of local and national artists every year. The center also holds a permanent collection of over 500 pieces. It is open to the public Monday through Friday. Go in through the main entrance at the corner of Chevrolet and University avenues and proceed from there.
James Draper has been a community volunteer and booster of various Flint cultural activities and events for the past 25 years. While an engineer by education and vocation he is also an award-winning artist, an avid boating enthusiast, a baker of artisan sourdough bread, and a raconteur of the peril, pitfalls, and occasional joy he gets from being a middle school substitute teacher.