A Harmonious Hub

From workshops and exhibits to musical performances of all stripes, the arts thrive at downtown Detroit’s Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center

If you haven’t yet visited the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center, here are a few things you’ve missed: a late-night jam session with Wynton Marsalis, exhibits by prominent Haitian artists, the sounds of Mosaic warming up for an evening master class with Dee Dee Bridgewater.

The Carr Center, a 115-year-old building in Detroit’s Paradise Valley district (also known as Harmonie Park), became the physical home of the Arts League of Michigan in June 2009. Since then, the 40,000-square-foot space has hosted a wide range of shows, workshops, and exhibits.

“We wanted to create a home for artists to be able to do their work and where their audiences could come, and to create a center for arts education,” says Oliver Ragsdale Jr., Arts League president. “When we talk about artists, we talk about it in the broadest sense of the word. We have musicians who practice here. We have poets who teach classes and do readings. All the disciplines are represented here and active here.”

Before the center opened, The Arts League operated out of an office and ran its programming at various metro Detroit sites. The move to permanent digs, funded primarily by Ford Motor Co. with support from Lear, Masco, DTE, the Knight Foundation, and Comerica, has allowed the center to expand its programming and offer classes, performances, exhibitions, and studio space — often simultaneously. The center is named for a Detroit philanthropist and former Detroit United Way CEO, the late Virgil H. Carr.

Its ability to so quickly and fully inhabit its new home is no surprise. The Harmonie Musical Society, which was dedicated to preserving German art songs, called lieder, built the structure in 1895 as a German cultural and social space. Each floor had a distinct character: The first level was created for fine dining, the second for a ballroom, the third for theater performances. The basement housed a rathskeller and bowling alley.

“Because they were in the music business, the acoustics are phenomenal throughout the building,” Ragsdale says. “All we’re doing is using the space for the way in which it was originally created.”

Some eccentricities from the building’s early years remain. One of the wooden support pillars in the main-floor gallery (formerly the dining room) is fitted with a doorbell-like button. The room features large windows that overlook the neighborhood, a view that gave Prohibition-era diners the ability to spy approaching vice officers and hit the button, warning illegal imbibers in the rathskeller below.

Today, the basement accommodates jam sessions and a weekly comedy club, as well as other staged events. The first floor houses art exhibitions, poetry readings and chamber music. The second floor hosts various performances; in one eight-day period this year, it saw two nights of techno music, a Detroit Symphony Orchestra performance, and an international jazz concert. There are plans for the top floor to be restored to its original use as a theater.

“Even though it’s historical, it’s almost as though the space were built for our purpose,” says Sharon Rothwell, an Arts League board member. “It can be used in so many ways and for all types of events that can really help bring the community together. It has such character — the woodwork, the design, the melding with the historical and the future — it’s perfect.”

The Jazz Network also has moved its offices into the building, where its president, Bill Foster, has lured a range of Haitian musicians and artists as well as numerous jazz standouts.

“I know just about all the musicians in town, so it’s never a problem to get people to come and play here,” Foster says.

Both the Jazz Network and Arts League’s efforts include a range of programs for children. A Knight Foundation-funded partnership with the Cranbrook Educational Community has brought a program called Music and the Science of Sound into Detroit Public Schools and community venues since last winter. The program features a performance by professional Detroit musicians combined with a presentation on how sound moves through space and hits the ear. In February, the partnership will unveil a new program on dance and the science of motion at the Carr Center. Both programs are aligned with state science benchmarks for high-school students.

“The relationship we have allows us each to do things they otherwise couldn’t do on their own,” says Michael Stafford, Cranbrook Institute of Science director. “The Carr Center is a gathering space for the Detroit art movement in many respects. Staying involved in their programming will expose the Carr Center to audiences that otherwise wouldn’t have encountered them, and allow us to engage Detroit audiences more deeply.”

Summer opportunities at the center included the Young Artists Training Program, a five-week visual arts experience for teens that culminated in the students manning their own booth at the Ann Arbor Art Fairs, where they sold 72 pieces. A jazz camp allowed children to learn with such jazz masters as Marcus Belgrave and George Davison.

This month’s calendar is booked with a bevy of planned activities. A 20-week artist mentorship program for teens launches on Jan. 15. That same weekend will see the opening of a major quilting exhibition, as well as events to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and the launching of the Jazz at the Center series. A new film program will kick off, and the center will host the Lear preview party for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“We want this to be a home, and we want everybody to own it,” Ragsdale says. “In our minds, it’s a different way of thinking about the organization and the building and the community.”