Detroit's Scarab Club gets new director

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Some people have just had fascinating careers. Take MaryAnn Wilkinson, who's the new executive director of Detroit's Scarab Club. 

"My career's been fantastic fun," she acknowledged in the club's art-deco lounge on the second floor, beneath ceiling beams signed by world-famous artists who've passed through Detroit. "Really, it's been a privilege." 

That privilege landed her first at the Detroit Institute of Arts from 1983-2009, and then at the UM Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, where she handled exhibitions until this fall, when she made the big move back to Detroit. 

Wilkinson is thrilled to be at the Scarab Club, the city bastion for artists and art lovers right behind the DIA, which will turn 112 this year. She and longtime gallery director Treena Flannery Ericson have big plans to boost the club's profile, but of those in a moment. 

First consider what Wilkinson, newly minted master of fine arts degree in hand, got to sink her teeth into when starting at the DIA. 

"I was hired as the organizing assistant for the big show the museum did on Cranbrook, 'Design in America: The Cranbrook Vision 1925-1950,' " she said, a landmark exhibition that went from Detroit to New York's Metropolitan Museum and then the Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki. 

"It was just a wonderful show," Wilkinson said. Indeed, it was an important early bid to reclaim Michigan's overlooked role in the genesis of architectural modernism. 

Then there was the museum itself, of course.

"Working with an incredible collection like the DIA?" she asked. "There's nothing like it. I'm not sure people really appreciate what a treasure it is. The permanent collection is almost unparalleled." 

The shift to the Taubman College brought its own rewards, where Wilkinson curated shows for the Taubman College Gallery on North Campus, and the Liberty Gallery in a great old industrial space in downtown Ann Arbor. 

Shows she particularly loved creating were one on Archigram, architectural rebels in 1960s London, as well as an exhibition on Tom Tjaarda, the celebrated designer of classic Italian sports cars. 

"I borrowed one of his cars from a collector here in Detroit," Wilkinson said. "There's a big garage door at the Liberty Gallery, so we just drove it in." She laughed. "That's the sort of stuff you can't do at the DIA."

One of her goals at the Scarab Club is to make the 1928 Arts-and-Crafts clubhouse a magnet for art enthusiasts, whether members or not. 

"Treena and I want to push the Scarab Club out into the community more," Wilkinson said. "It's one of those unassuming places people either don't know about, or are hesitant to come into, thinking it's not for them. Of course," she added, "for a long time it wasn't — for years women weren't allowed to be members."

Wilkinson intends to reach out to artists young and old, and try to lure them into joining the roughly 500 members the club has at present. 

Among other strategies, the club is renovating its sketch studio in the basement — perhaps the only place in the city where you can walk in off the street, pay just $10 (if you're not a member), and do live-sketching with a model four times a week. 

"We also want to encourage people to come in, bring their laptops and just hang out" on the comfortable second floor lounge, beneath signatures by the likes of Diego Rivera, Margaret Bourke-White, Max Eastman and Detroit's own Charles McGee. 

Not a bad way to spend a winter's afternoon, wouldn't you say? 

Scarab Club

217 Farnsworth, Detroit

(313) 831-1250 

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 

(313) 222-6021