Saturday, April 23, 2011

Detroit's Cass Corridor Art Movement: "Food" for the Soul

Schell, Lisa M. (April, 2010). David Zucca Among 'His Children'. [Digital Photograph]. Private Collection.

David Zucca is an art collector of Cass Corridor Artwork and a life-long advocate of Detroit artists. As one of the few art collectors of this era, he owns and has owned a fair amount of the work created during this pivotal “renaissance” period of art in Detroit. Originally from Michigan, having studied at both MSU and Yale, he was introduced to the art world after taking a job as stockbroker in New York City in the 1960s. Immersing himself in that world afforded him both an eye and a passion for fine art. Returning to Michigan in 1972, he attended his first exhibition at the Willis Gallery where he found himself landed squarely in the middle of the Cass Corridor Movement. While befriending many artists he further developed his passion for art and became one of the primary collectors of Cass Corridor art and more recently has become one of Wayne State University’s greatest donors. Today, he lives in Ann Arbor, MI where he works as a stockbroker and continues to support local Detroit artists by attending exhibitions and continuing to collect the work that serves as “food” for his soul.

Interviewing David Zucca for the Cass Corridor Oral History Project clearly generated more insights that would not have otherwise been known or felt if I had not conducted an interview and just simply read and researched this art movement in Detroit. The visceral experience of interviewing a person who was crucial in helping to shape a part of history solidifies not only my understanding but anchors my interest to pursuing more information about this artistic renaissance in Detroit. David Zucca as a subject proved to be a great portal into this world and served as an eager and willing participant in the process of oral history narration and creation. He had a story to tell and was very forthright in sharing it, which in the end made my lack of interviewing experience less noticeable and more forgivable. In other words, being a seasoned interviewee, what I lacked in technique he made up for in an innate sensibility of anticipatory inquiry. My goal for this interview was to conduct a solid interview based on oral history techniques while capturing the heart of a story. In the end, my experience of the art and act of interviewing was both challenging and surprising.

Newton, Gordon (1976). Wheel of Fortune. [Cardboard, metal, paint, plaster, polyester resin, and other media on wood]. The Detroit Institute of Art Kick Out the Jams Exhibition Catalogue, 1980.

David Zucca is in many ways the perfect interviewee. He has an important story to share that helps to better understand an important historical, cultural, and artistic regional movement. Being an art collector, once in New York and later of the Cass Corridor art, he mingled with modern high art types and was privy to a world that would afford him a particular brand of insight that only someone in his position could share. Moving between parties with Andy Warhol to drinks at the local bar in Detroit with Cass Corridor artists gave him access to a world that the rest of the nation really missed and arguably even the city of Detroit, outside of just those who were in it. Second, Zucca was a very willing participant who was comfortable sharing his story and, most importantly, who wanted to share it. With extreme humbleness what motivates Zucca is a clear appreciation and love for the art that he calls “his children” rather than an agenda to secure his own legacy as an art collector, since most of his art has since been gifted and hangs silently uninsured in his very modest home in Ann Arbor. Lastly, beyond Zucca’s story and personable nature is a real understanding of the entire landscape of the art world. Being a life-long collector of both New York and Detroit artists, he understands the politics of the art world, the struggling nature of artists and their need to generate a livelihood as they carve out time, space and money to create, and an overall sense that art is really “food” for the soul. As an articulate and passionate narrator, Zucca offers a glimpse into a world with both expertise and heart that further legitimizes Cass Corridor.

As mentioned earlier, because of Zucca’s willingness to repeatedly share his story, his interviewing chops were quite evident. So much so, that he anticipated and answered many of my questions before I could even ask them. Because of his comfort, that contributed to my increased comfort level. In fact, between the first and second phone calls, I already felt a strong rapport had been established and by the time I had arrived on his doorstep for the interview, I felt like I was being greeted by an old friend. Bearing spring flowers and a snack, I was greeted with tea, cookies and gifted with two exhibition books, one of course being the Kick Out The Jams Exhibition Book from the DIA’s Cass Corridor Exhibition in 1980. Conversation flowed and by the end of the interview, we both laughed and I was invited to tour his collection with a detailed story of each piece over tea and snacks. While my ease with Zucca felt very normal and natural, there were times that I caught myself getting so caught up in the story, that I forgot that I was there to interview and I felt myself more as a spectator than a co-narrator in this story.

Phelan, Ellen (1971-1972). Untitled-Chair. [Acrylic on canvas, wrapped wood form]. The Detroit Institute of Art Kick Out the Jams Exhibition Catalogue, 1980.

Matching my goals with my outcome was a mixed experience. Clearly my rapport with Zucca allowed for the interview to flow and he even at points felt comfortable enough to express some emotion, I felt that I got swept up in the moment and forgot my role as a neutral participant. After listening to the transcript, it was clear to me that I made many subtle, yet encouraging affirmations. While they were too numerous to note, I suspect if I had showed more restraint that perhaps that could have affected moments in the interview. Additionally, I noticed that there were moments that we would be speaking at the same time and instead of just waiting for him to finished and go back, I would continue talking or talk louder and that made the transcription more difficult because I could not then hear what either one of us said. Lastly, on the upside I do feel confident that despite my mistakes, it did not get in the way of Zucca offering up valuable insights into the Cass Corridor Movement and I would like to think that perhaps maybe he was able to be more reflective at moments about his own desire to collect art in a very deep and passionate way due to my questioning prompts. Exploring his motivations, I think really did reveal the heart of this interview, which for me, accomplished my goal.

Chatelain, James. (1975). Untitled. [Oil on canvas]. Time and place: Art of Detroit's Cass Corridor from the Wayne State University collection, June, 2009.

In the end, as mentioned earlier, I would have never learned as much or been as interested in the Cass Corridor Movement without this interview. Putting s human face and attaching a story to an historical event along with meeting others trying to preserve this history and seeing the art all contributed to my ability to want to know more because I now feel part of helping to shape and preserve that history. Personal investment is key to my learning and I can really see the value not only conducting an oral history but the quality of information that is preserved can almost be as real as the interviewer’s experience if the transcript is both read and listened to at the same time. While it is a generation removed, it still helps to bring alive history in a way that only a person as opposed to a book can.

Schell, Lisa M. (January 2011). "Discovering Michigan’s gritty roots: Wayne State’s Cass Corridor oral history project," Midwest Archives Conference Newsletter, p 23-4.