Long-Awaited Sisson Gallery Renovation Underway

2019 Student Art Exhibiton, Sisson Gallery panaramic photos courtesy Steve Glazer, director of exhibitions.

2019 Student Art Exhibiton, Sisson Gallery panaramic photos courtesy Steve Glazer, director of exhibitions.

Last month, construction began to repair and improve the Henry Ford College Sisson Gallery. In 2019, Henry Ford College leadership approved updating the Sisson Gallery, located in the MacKenzie Fine Arts Building. For decades, the Sisson Gallery has hosted local, national, and internationally renowned artists as well as student exhibitions. Built over forty years ago, the Sisson Gallery has long been in need of repairs and updates. Instructor of Art, Director of Exhibitions, and Faculty Chair of Fine and Performing Arts Steven Glazer shares his thoughts on the history of the gallery and the planned improvements.

KW: Please provide a brief history of the gallery.

SG: The best I can tell you is the Sisson Gallery has been in operation for quite a while. My guess since the building opened in 1979, according to the large plaque in the Fine Arts Center lobby. The bottom plaque is labeled “Donors of Rooms-Facilities”, and amongst the list is “Gallery - Harry A Sisson Charitable Trust”; this seems to confirm my thoughts that the Sisson Gallery was part of the original MacKenzie Fine Arts Center construction plans.

KW: What was the last exhibit?

SG: The last professional exhibition was “Mixed Nuts” curated by adjunct faculty member Mariam Ezzat. Ms. Ezzat had recently won a Kresge Fellowship, so I thought it would be fitting to ask her if she was interested in curating an exhibition.

KW: What was the last student art exhibit?

SG: The last Henry Ford College Student Art Exhibition was April 1-11, 2019.

KW: What was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the gallery?

SG: We were unable to have any exhibitions in the Sisson after February of 2020 as COVID hit. We put on the Winter 2022 Henry Ford College Graduating Art and Design Students’ Exit Exhibition which included Paige Deon, Katherine “Katie” Warden, Laura Olsen, Destinee Lewis and Hannah Daniel. Note that since most of the Graphic Design classes were online, Ms. Shepherd made participation optional, and only Laura Olsen “opted in.”

KW: What updates to the gallery can students look forward to?

SG: A lot, but to most of our current students, who weren’t here prior to the pandemic, it won’t be obvious unless it is explained. First of all, we have been using the original lighting system from when the building was built in the 1970s. While we were able to move to LED type bulbs a few years ago, they were large, old style, flood light type bulbs that were still using the old style, large tin can looking light housings.

The walls have been covered with a warm toned gray-brown carpet for years (since the building opened), and while carpeted walls have gone out of style with school and community galleries, it is still very functional, as it doesn’t show nail and screw holes all over. Most professional and school galleries these days have white plywood walls, but the drawback to that is that you need to spackle and touch up paint after almost every exhibition. Furthermore, the hired “designer team,” refused to consider plywood walls, stating that if you wanted white walls the only thing they would consider is drywall with a hanging rail that went around the room. That style is even more out of style than carpeted walls, as it forces everything to be hung at one height or everything to be hung by cables coming down from the hanging rail. They tried to tell me that this is what all major galleries and museums use these days, which is obviously not accurate if you venture to the DIA or any of the better galleries around the area (N’Namdi, Galerie Camille, Robert Kidd. etc., or the galleries at EMU, WSU or UM, or even the gallery at WCCCD Downriver.) The walls will be covered with a cool tone, medium gray carpet.

The carpet on the floor, which has always been part of the Sisson, though updated about a dozen years ago, will be totally removed, and the floors will be polished concrete. This or hardwood is what is used in most galleries and museums these days.

The metal slats that were over the sunken area of the ceiling will no longer be there. I have been led to believe that we may be getting either actual hardwood to cover this area and in some trim areas right above light level in the “taller” portion of the room. The “design team” wanted to use drywall covered with wallpaper that looks like wood, but a few issues came up: (1) We should not cover the sunken area of the ceiling with drywall, as there is a bunch of HVAC stuff up there, and if ever needs to be worked on, it would mean tearing the drywall out. (2) Wallpaper is glued on, and therefore can come unglued over time, and can also tear. Once this happens the wallpaper is going to look quite tacky at best, or just plain horrible. (3) If the wallpaper ever needs to be replaced, it will probably be an all or nothing type event, as wallpaper styles change so quickly.

My understanding is that we are also supposed to get a projector and a “hidden” pull down screen in the gallery so contemporary, new media work can be presented.

KW: What has caused some of the setbacks since the announcement of the gallery’s update in 2019?

SG: Let’s just say that the original Technology Improvement Fund proposal was approved right as COVID hit, so that had a lot to do with it. As a result of COVID, like the whole building industry, there have been supply chain issues.

KW: When might the gallery be open?

SG: If everything goes right, I would love to see a Winter 2023 Student Art Exhibition and a Winter 2023 Graduating Art and Design Students’ Exit Exhibition. If that doesn’t happen, I hope it is open for Fall 2023.

KW: What could be a future show to open the new gallery with?

SG: I have a bunch of ideas of potential exhibitions, but If the Sisson Gallery was ready for use in Fall 2023, right now is the time that the 2023-2024 Gallery Schedule should be worked out. Without knowing for sure, it is really hard to plan, which may amount to the first year being a “what can we get at the last minute” sort of thing. I would love to see at least one exhibition that features art from beyond southeast Michigan each year. I would like to have a faculty exhibition, which we haven’t done in a few years. I think it would be good for our Art and Design students to have exhibitions featuring the works of the faculty at schools we have transfer agreements with. Many do not realize how many artists, both locally and beyond, started their education at HFC.

KW: What about events like the Annual Pottery Boutique?

SG: The Annual Pottery Boutique is a bit more challenging. When that was started, it was started by a group of advanced students after Team Ceramics had booths at both the Wyandotte Street Art Fair and the Howell Melon Festival. The idea was to challenge the Annual Potters Market. The problem became that the Potter’s Market, which at the time was still run by the Ceramics area at Oakland Community College-Royal Oak, was able to flood the entire metro Detroit area with ads and other promotional material, and we could not. The Detroit News and Free Press both do articles on The Potters Market each year. There are both billboards throughout southern Oakland County about the event and during the event road signs throughout the area with arrows and “This way to the Potters Market.” The PR is everywhere. The Potters Market gets major network television coverage each year—both in advance and while it is on—every year the networks do interviews there. The reporters are actually there. We could not get the interest on campus to do anything like this. Like The Potters Market, the Annual Pottery Boutique included current students, past students, as well as professional potters. The biggest problem then was the Pottery Boutique sold a bit over $12,000 worth of ware the first year and a bit over $14,000 the next three years of its existence. The Potters Market sells $400,000 - $450,000 worth of ware in the same amount of time. That is the power of PR. As the result of small sales, the professional potters didn’t seem interested to keep going with the Pottery Boutique.

On the other hand, I have heard from some of the professional potters that were involved in the Pottery Boutique that they thought the HFC approach, which was all of the work being done by HFC students, was, in their words, such a great idea. The Potters Market requires all involved to put in a lot of hours, but at HFC the potters dropped off their work and picked up what was left afterwards. At the Potters Market, each potter gets assigned a task or two that they have to do each day during the show, but at HFC, the students involved had to learn how to do everything involved in this type of event. Could it come back? It would take buy-in from above to seriously promote it throughout metro Detroit.

Images of past exhibits at the Sisson Gallery can be found on the Sisson Gallery website: sisson.hfcc.edu.