Vibrant art pieces hanging on wide walls. The sound of someone’s newly written freestyle blasting through the loudspeakers. The smell of chicken and waffles wafting through the rooms. People in different colored hairstyles, fashion choices, ages, races all together in one small space.
It’s not just another exhibition opening at a gallery in Detroit, but a party at a place many would describe as a home and safe space for artists in the city.
Unfortunately for the Baltimore Gallery, it’s also the closing exhibition.
On May 31, the gallery showcased art in a variety of styles by over 30 artists under the theme “Moven Pictures.” More than 200 people attended.
Founded as an open art gallery and event space in 2015, the Baltimore Gallery has been a staple in the black artist community. Owner Phil Simpson made it a priority to feature up and coming talent, and numerous black artists and musicians got their start at the gallery. And in rapidly gentrifying Milwaukee Junction, patrons and artists alike saw it as a place of refuge.
But Simpson announced that the Baltimore Gallery will be closing its doors June 30 this year so he can focus on other ventures.
Fans of the gallery agree that it’s a blow to the community. But they’re choosing to focus on the positives, and are hopeful that either the building or another venue can be a similar showcase for black artistic talent in the city.
“It was just love, all love”
Before Simpson took over in 2015, the Baltimore Gallery was known as Untitled Bottega. Simpson’s Detroit School of Arts friend Flaco Shalom founded it in a loft on Iron Street after being told his art wasn’t good enough to be exhibited. Eventually, the space became so popular that he had to move it to its bigger, current space on East Baltimore Street.
Artists such as Dej Loaf, Danny Brown, and Nolan the Ninja were just a few of the acts that performed there early in their careers.
“It was great, it was amazing. I wish I could live it over again,” Rapper The Monalyse recalls of the early days of Untitled Bottega. “It was just love, all love. I would go there to perform, it was a culture of people. It was like the OGs of the scene. And it was our space.”
Ken Brass, creator of the gallery’s longest running program, the “Sound Off Sundays” open mic, says it was an essential place for local artists. “Artists knew they could come here, find a place where they could create, grow, and learn things to hone their skills. ... It was a safe place for Detroit artists.”
Shalom began looking for someone else to run the gallery full time in September 2014. He asked Phil Simpson, who had just left TechTown Detroit was looking for a new venture.
Although Simpson was a creative person, he never expected to ever run a gallery. “I have always been an artist, always been creative, and always dreamed of having a space for artists,” Simpson says. “Not exactly an art gallery, but a space for people to create and showcase.”
He got the keys in December and opened January 1 under a new name: The Baltimore Gallery.
Although under new management and expanding to become an event space, it remained a respected place in the community. “It was a place of black excellence, is the best way to put it,” Brass says. “People knew this was a place they could go and experience the real artistry of Detroit and not the makeshift corporate part of it.”
And it was still a vital place for young artists. Tony Whlgn, a founder of a group that fosters creative entrepreneurs, painted a mural for the gallery. He credits Baltimore Gallery as a place where him and others could grow as artists and people.
“It gave a platform for youth and individuals like myself, who had an interest in learning more about art and growing within the community,” Whlgn says. “It also taught us how to use things in a multi-purpose manner. Watching Phil convert it from an art gallery to an event space to mural festival to a block party showed how innovative individuals could be.”
The final days
The Baltimore Gallery has remained popular throughout the years, and Simpson says there aren’t any pressing financial issues. But the gallery is closing nonetheless.
For Simpson, the reasons are entirely personal: He wants to spend more time with his family. “I fell in love running an art gallery, but was never an events person. Now that I started a family, I want to be home more.”
Simpson also plans to focus on his company, The Smile Brand, with his wife. He’ll stay connected to the art community and do pop-up exhibits.
When the news was announced, artists were understandably saddened. “It’s a loss in our community,” Whlgn says. “People don’t understand how important it is to have a space like that at this moment.”
But Whlgn is optimistic another place like the Baltimore Gallery can succeed; this closure will just push the black artistic community to find another. NorWest Gallery of Art in Grandmont-Rosedale, for example, fills a similar niche in the black artistic community.
“With gentrification, artists in Detroit are always fighting for space,” Whlgn says.
Simpson has made sure the last months were memorable. There’s been a whole slate of events, including a “Sound Off Sundays” on the gallery’s final day.
“A lot of pops-up and appreciation events to be able to say thank you to everyone for supporting the gallery this long,” Simpsons says.
For Simpson, one thing is clear: the gallery will end, buy the artistry won’t. “No matter without this space, I know artists will keep thriving and we gonna meet in another space.”