On the edge of Flint’s downtown strip, a gallery dedicated to one of the largest private collections of African American art in the country sits in unassuming digs that you’ll drive right past if you’re not paying attention.
But no one is here for the exterior. It’s what’s hanging on the walls inside that matters.
The MW Gallery is the public-facing gallery for the vast Mott-Warsh Collection, encompassing more than 800 pieces of contemporary art by African American artists across sculpture, videos, mixed media, photographs, paintings, and beyond.
There are works by white artists, too, who focus their artistic gaze on Black subjects, including work by contemporary name brands such as Robert Mapplethorpe.
Maryanne Mott — the daughter of General Motors mogul and former Flint Mayor Charles Stewart Mott — and her late husband, Herman Warsh, started the collection from scratch around 2001 after watching funding for the arts evaporate from public schools in Flint and around the country.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education released a report showing the largest decline in arts education for students happening in low-income communities such as Flint. Then-U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan described the gap as a “civil rights issue.”
“They wanted to fill the void of art education not taking place in public schools, but also the idea that there are many audiences who don’t necessarily frequent museums,” says Stephanie James, the director and curator of the Mott-Warsh Collection. The collection also lends out its works to other cultural institutions, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and many others.
This mission has led the gallery and collection to bring the art to the people of Flint, positioning artwork in local libraries, hospitals, and other public facilities. It’s a similar concept to the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Inside Out program, which brings reproductions to outdoor venues throughout metro Detroit. The MW Gallery, however, is doing one better by bringing original artworks to public areas.
“The initial focus was to place art in public spaces in and around Flint to make art more accessible,” says James, who previously worked as an assistant curator for the General Motors Center for African American Art at the DIA. “As a curator, it goes against what any museum curator practices. But this is what we do here.”
Why take such a risk?
“Because we feel it’s that important to place art in the community,” James says.
To celebrate the five-year anniversary of the MW Gallery this year, James curated a show called First Look: Recent Acquisitions and Rarely Seen Gems. It spans 56 works, celebrating work from artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s on view now through Aug. 21.
The show features early wood sculptures by El Anatsui, a Ghanian sculptor who now lives and works in Nigeria. He’s now known for his metal tapestries, which are also on display at First Look. Jack Whitten’s “Black Monolith” is a standout of the show, a stunning sculptural painting that uses paint chips to create his unique take on a mosaic.
The show also includes contemporary artists such as Bisa Butler, Leonardo Drew, Rozeal, and Amy Sherald, who created the groundbreaking official portrait for first lady Michelle Obama. Mid-career and established artists such as Kerry James Marshall and Howardena Pindell round out the show.
“It gives us a chance to show off some of the things that we’ve acquired in the past five years,” James says, adding that this show has a lighter subject matter than some of the more serious, social justice-themed shows that the gallery has recently hosted, which were direct reflections of how art institutions locally and nationally are responding to the contemporary civil rights movement.
For more information, visit m-wc.org.