By Jeffery L. Carey Jr.
As this year comes to an end and the world prepares for new beginnings, so does Flint’s Buckham Gallery, the state’s longest-running, artist-led, nonprofit gallery.
It’s Flint’s version of “a big city gallery,” Buckham’s director, Lynn Penning, says–a downtown arts survivor “independent in its thinking with a unique point of view.”
For over 34 years the gallery, up two dozen steep steps at 134 West Second St., has been an important art venue, drawing artists and visitors from Flint, Genesee, Oakland, Wayne and Livingston counties. Buckham also has, “an extremely excellent reputation in Ann Arbor and Detroit especially,” according to artist and board member Michael Melet.
Now Buckham is moving to its newly-renovated location in the Perry Building just across the street. The move was initially planned for the end of the year, but at a recent meeting a decision was made to push the move date forward so that the Perry Building, now under reconstruction, can have a cohesive opening In January that includes other new venues.
Neighbors of the new Buckham Gallery will include a men’s store called The Total Man Fine Clothier & Grooming and an ELGA Credit Union branch office.
”Our first exhibit in the new space will be Jan. 11, 2019,” Penning said. “As of now, the plan is to host a closing party here on the same evening.”
“My family and I had a women’s retail fashion store, The Vogue, kitty-cornered from the new Buckham Gallery building,” Melet said, reminiscing about the history of the location. “I joined my father at The Vogue in 1960 when Walgreen Drug store was in that location.” Eventually Walgreen’s closed and Perry Drugs opened in the vacant space. Then “Perry Drugs closed and the building sat empty for I think about 30 years.”
The iconic gallery, which opened in 1984 as Buckham Fine Arts Project, has long been a place in Flint where “Flint and area residents can view a variety of contemporary art created by local artists as well as artists from throughout the state and nation,” Penning said. The first show was called “Enclaves” and featured the work of Robert Caskey from Mott Community College, Syd Atkinson of Flint and Jay Yager, then from Eastern Michigan University. Others in that show were Pi Benio, Bob Caskey, Douglas Hoppa, James Schaffer and Deanna Sperka.
In the early years, a cadre of colorful and influential local artists, many faculty and students of the MCC art program, associated themselves with Buckham. A photo on the Buckham website taken in 1983 or 1984 identifies the founding members as Robin Bucalo, Sam Morello, John Bender, Syd Atkinson, Bob Caskey. Jan Murdock (Hartranft), Ken Kinyon, Pat Mishina, Jim Anthony, Gary Gebhardt. and Tom Nuzum, though many others came and went over the years. Cindy Bibb, Kathy Rose, and Kathryn Sharbaugh was among the early founders as well, various sources said.
Others included Guy Adamec, Joe Bommarito, John Dempsey, Doug Hoppa, John Kotarski, Chris Waters, Linda Woodruff, and the four principles of the powerhouse DAS Print group, Stephen Davidek, Jim Anthony, William Stolpin and Carole Brender. Of the DAS Print group, only Brender is still alive.
Gary Gebhardt owned the building and MCC faculty member Doug Warner had a studio at the top of the stairs to The Torch. They all were frequent exhibitors and passionate supporters of contemporary art.
Penning described how Buckham Gallery survived Flint’s downturn, continuing to show art over a long stretch of rough years. Like the city, Buckham struggled and overcame the challenges that seemed insurmountable at the time.
“People from this area relate to that type of fortitude,” Penning said. “Surviving those difficult times, Buckham Gallery, like Flint, transforming, starting a new phase which reflects a new era.”
“There are art galleries and there are art galleries,” Melet reflected. “Back in the early 80’s Flint’s most talented, most serious, most reputable artists saw a void. There was no place in this community where ‘serious’ art could be shown. It was as simple as that.”
Melet said the community of Flint at the time had no venue to expose the population to new, fresh, art from around the country and world. “Before Buckham, if you weren’t fortunate enough to travel and see famous museums and art galleries, your exposure to the arts was nonexistent.”
“When Buckham Gallery opened for the first time, the public saw new first class art and just as important, the local serious artist had a venue to show their art,” Melet said.
The call for art was expanded also to reach out to the entire country’s art communities. “Once a year for 34 plus years we have a ‘call to entry,’ inviting artists from everywhere to send slides of their work to be juried by artist members for future shows,” Melet said.
In addition to visual arts, Buckham has been a showcase for local performers and writers throughout the years, hosting open mic events, student shows from both Mott Community College and the University of Michigan – Flint, such as the Qua Literary Journal’s launch parties.
According to Penning. the gallery hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning Beat poet and philosopher Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg attended an art show in 1985 where he also did a memorable reading, chanting and singing to a packed house, as he sat on the floor plucking a harmonium.
Currently Buckham offers its, First Friday Open Mic,which showcases performances by area artists and residents on the first Friday of Each month. Hosted by Buckham Gallery and its artist-member Nic Custer, the doors open at 6:45 p.m with the open mic starting 7 p.m. Performers sign in at the door.
Asked what prompted the move, Melet stated, “For 34-plus years we have been on the second floor of 134 W. 2nd St. at the top of many stairs. No elevator. No escalator. No handicapped accessibility. For a ‘normal’ person the stairs were difficult to climb.” The old location does not have an elevator and due to building codes and a lack of finances an elevator was not an option.
“I remember I had my first show at Buckham in February or 2011,” Melet said. “My mother, who was 99 years old and in pretty good health at the time, was not able to attend because of the stairs.” Melet also described a conversation with someone during an Art Walk evening who said to him, “Michael tonight is the last time I will ever walk up these stairs.”
With work on the new Buckham Gallery nearing its completion Penning said, “Every time I walk into the new gallery, I think, ‘this is beautiful’. I feel a bit awe struck and eager to occupy the new space. The high ceiling, new flawless drywall, and the open floor plan make the space perfect for a gallery.”
Penning said that they were leaving the original diamond-patterned floor because it gives the refurbished contemporary space a vintage feel. She said they also were leaving some of the original crown molding to give the new venue a sense of history.
“I saw an old photo from the 1930’s when workers were laying the bricks on Saginaw Street,” she said. “The building Buckham is moving into, 600 S. Saginaw Street, was not the building in the photograph, so sometime in the late 30’s or 40’s, this building replaced a previous building from the 1800’s.”
The Last Exhibit runs from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. The show will feature the work of Buckham’s 40 current artist members, several of whom have been part of Buckham Gallery since its early years. The first exhibit In the new space, January 11, will feature Buckham artist-member Michael Melet and guest artists Laura Stein, Rosemary Bostek, Terry Schupbach-Gordon, and Edward Tillery.
“Flint has regained its vitality,” said Penning. “Artist-member Michael Melet and I stood outside of the original gallery, looking across the street at the new Buckham Gallery and the construction going on at 600 S. Saginaw.
“I said, ‘I couldn’t have imagined this version of Flint 15 years ago’ and Michael agreed. I added, ‘and, we can’t possibly imagine what downtown Flint will look like in another 15 years.’ We both agreed it will be fabulous.”
EVM Staff Writer Jeffery L. Carey, Jr. can be reached at email@example.com. EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson, who was present at the Buckham opening in 1984 and the Ginsberg performance in 1985, contributed to this report. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.