Playground Detroit uplifts artists, entrepreneurs

The organization, started by two young women who left New York, spotlights emerging talent in the Motor City

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Neon lights bounce off the walls. Beats pump in the background. The cocktails flow.

Elite art collectors in suits and sleek dresses may come to mind when you think of a gallery showing, but the crowd of Detroit millennials at this exhibit arrive in jeans, baseball hats and leggings.

The November pop-up event held at the retailer Detroit Is The New Black was curated by PLAYGROUND DETROIT, a creative catalyst started in 2012 by Paulina Petkoski and Samantha “Banks” Schefman. The two 30-year-old Metro Detroiters spent years in the New York arts and fashion industries and recently returned to help promote emerging Detroit artists, musicians and entrepreneurs. Now partnering with local shops and venues to host exhibitions and concerts, they plan to open their own space in Eastern Market this spring.

“We really believe in the city and the talent here,” Petkoski says. “Our work really showcases the city as a great place to live and play. It’s creating vibrancy and empowering the people that are here.”

“When you’re looking at a city that’s trying to redefine itself and going into the future, you have to support creative people — not just tech, not just automotive, not just urban farming,” she adds. “It’s really important to support artists because they’re looking at things critically, they’re offering solutions, and they’re redefining what it means to use art outside of a commercial way.”

Hailey Dukes, a contributor to Playground’s online magazine, pitched in with bartending that night. Originally from Kent, Ohio, the bubbly 25-year-old moved to Detroit two years ago for a job at Quicken Loans. Then she discovered the Detroit arts scene and left her corporate gig to work for Playground Detroit. Though just years younger, she considers Petkoski and Schefman her role models.

“They integrate the community. You can feel it,” says Dukes, scanning the room with diverse faces. “It’s non-judgmental. It’s like, come as you are, whoever you are. It’s all about the art, and it’s all about the connection.”

Many were admiring the light installations by Scott Klinker, Cranbrook Academy of Art 3D designer-in-residence, one of four artists featured that night. Admittedly on “the upper edge of the young and hip category,” the 51-year-old met Schefman a few months ago, and she asked him to be in this “Ambience” show.

“Detroit is really hitting a tipping point in terms of the creative community, and they are helping to shape it,” Klinker says in front of his circles backlit with green and orange LED lights. “They’re the young, hip, edgy side of the arts scene, and they’re creating a platform for people to show their work and connect with the community and collectors.”

David Klein Gallery director Christine Schefman, Samantha’s mom, says Playground Detroit taps into an audience that her gallery in Detroit and Birmingham doesn’t always see.

“They’re hitting a younger population and getting them excited about art, and that’s something that galleries and museums now (struggle with),” she says.

Equally important, they’re helping young artists thrive in Detroit.

Luke Mack, a Chrysler automotive designer and painter, was selected for Playground’s six-week artist residency at the Detroit incubator Ponyride, which culminated with an exhibit Friday. Left on his own, the 25-year-old from Rochester Hills says he’d be lost on how to promote his paintings.

“It’s like an artist’s dream,” he says of the doors that Playground Detroit opens. “(They’re) there to support you and get you out in the city.”

Playground in New York City

Petkoski befriended Schefman at Groves High School in Beverly Hills. The two went separate ways for college — Petkoski attended Wayne State before earning a bachelor’s degree in fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, while Schefman studied at the University of Iowa before transferring to the College for Creative Studies, where she received a bachelor’s degree in metalsmithing.

In 2010, they were living in New York and reconnected. At that point, Petkoski had worked with Calvin Klein (her senior class critic), interned for Isaac Mizrahi and launched her own clothing line. During her senior class show, the Diane von Furstenberg creative director scouted her out and offered a full-time internship at $20 a day.

Meanwhile, Schefman moved to New York the week she graduated for a jewelry design job. She then met the owner of the Mike Weiss Gallery in Chelsea, who hired her as the manager in charge of sales, archiving, the website, artist communication and all odds and ends.

“I got an insane crash course on what it takes to run a really high-end gallery,” Schefman says. But the 12-hour days were killers.

Petkoski left her $20 intern stint in winter 2011 to return home to care for her mom who broke her leg. During those three months, she discovered the DIY vibe of Detroit.

“When I left in 2006-2007, there was not so much energy downtown. It was very quiet, and I was a little concerned for the people who had stayed here. I was like, ‘You guys should leave too.’ ”

Then she wound up one night in a cold Detroit church, transformed into a party scene for a Brooklyn independent film crew.

“We were trying to act like we’re dancing and having fun, and it just hit me, like, ‘What is this place? This is so wild and exciting and just really inspiring.’ ”

Not ready to move home permanently, she returned to New York to work for Rachel Roy, but she couldn’t get Detroit off her mind.

“Everyone in Brooklyn thinks they’re so trendy and edgy and innovative, and what I saw here was raw, it was real,” she says, “and it was just like nothing I had experienced. I felt the energy.”

Schefman understood — she experienced that energy while living downtown for college. So they came up with an idea to show Brooklyn that Detroit was “happening.” The plan: Organize a big festival with fellow Detroit expats, and bring Detroit artists and musicians to New York for the event.

The concept for Playground Detroit was born.

Paulina Petkoski, left, is founder and executive director of Playground Detroit, and Samantha Banks Schefman is the organization’s co-founder and deputy director.

Returning to their roots

The festival didn’t transpire. The two never worked in event production and hit a wall with Chrysler, which they targeted as a sponsor, hoping to attract the automaker’s “Imported from Detroit” campaign.

Instead, they hosted smaller events. With the help of Isabella Bruno, now the National September 11 Memorial & Museum curator, in 2012 they screened the Detroit-based documentary “After the Factory” in Bushwick. The directors even flew out to speak to the 85-person audience.

Seeing the interest in Detroit, they held several more events.

Then Rachel Roy laid off Petkoski. As she describes it, this was her opportunity to “jump.”

“I had been preaching Detroit for the past couple years,” she says. “If I’m saying, Detroit is the place to be, but I’m not there, what does that say?”

In late 2014, she packed up a U-Haul and booked it home.

“All my friends in New York were like, ‘Oh my God, she did it,’ ” she says, whispering. “It really turned heads because I had a good life there.”

Schefman followed a year later, after leaving her stressful job at the gallery. Compared to New York, there’s no fashion or jewelry industry in Detroit. So the women decided to go full force on Playground Detroit.

The name — formed during the festival planning days — is intended to connote a playground, “an inspiring place where people are able to experiment, play, create relationships and grow,” Petkoski says.

In over a year, the women have curated over 20 events in Metro Detroit and worked with over 100 artists. They were also among the first Motor City Match grant recipients and 2016 Knight Arts Challenge finalists.

This summer, they presented a show for Louise Chen (who goes by Ouizi) at Will Leather Goods for their ongoing featured artist series. Known for her floral murals in Eastern Market and Astro Coffee, the 28-year-old from Santa Cruz moved to Detroit three years ago and met Petkoski and Scheman at a BBQ.

At her studio, a house full of spraypaint bottles and half-started canvasses on the east side, Chen says they’re close friends.

“It’s not ideal to have your business partners be your friends, but in my ideal world, the people that you hold close are also the people that you work with,” she says.

While galleries typically take a 50-50 split, Playground Detroit takes 40 and gives artists 60 percent of sales from shows. They also coordinate commissions for residences and act as liaisons for curious Detroit visitors. Last month, Schefman took New York Foundation for the Arts board members for a private tour of artist studios.

“That’s the kind of value we can create for people if they want to get closer to the creative talent in the city,” Petkoski says.

Detroiter James McGill looks at artwork during an artists-in-residence exhibition presented by Playground Detroit on Friday at Ponyride in Detroit.

The next playground phase

Named The Playground, their new building at 2845 Gratiot, formerly a kitchen supply store, sits on the Eastern Market outskirts.

“We’re really excited to push the edge of that and encourage people to get further down Gratiot Avenue and more into the neighborhoods where Eastern Market is planning to expand in the next 10 years,” Petkoski says.

Through a Kickstarter campaign that launched Monday, they say they hope to raise $75,000 for programing and renovation of the 1,500-square-foot space built in 1877.

Chatting in Ponyride, their current office, the women acknowledge this venture would not be possible if they stayed in New York City.

“The space in New York is so small and so expensive that I really couldn’t see us even attempting this,” Petkoski says.

The goal is to open a gallery but also offer a gathering space for creatives who’ve been shut out due to development.

“As the city is experiencing this incredible renaissance, you can’t start to squash out the places that have been creating vibrancy and really holding the community together,” Petkoski says.

Eventually, they’d like to host pop-ups with national retailers that want to test the Detroit market.

“You’ve got all these hot brands coming here,” Petkoski says, ticking off Warby Parker, Kit and Ace and Nike, “but not everybody can be the Nike flagship store. ... We can host a brand that needs an opportunity to sell to a Detroit customer, and we can be the connector.”

But the focus will always be on art.

“Art does so many things, but it improves the quality of life, and people in the city of Detroit need that,” Petkoski says, adding that art and the exchange of ideas “inspires people to push harder, dream bigger and to really expand their potential.”

After all, Playground Detroit is about “the potential.”

“The potential of the city. The potential of the creators here doing things,” Petkoski says, “and what we can achieve when you put energy into that.”

(313) 222-2156


Detroit artist Ellen Rutt works on a window installation titled “Overthinking” at the David Klein Gallery in Detroit in November. Playground Detroit has curated several window exhibits for the gallery.

Playground Kickstarter Campaign

Goal: $75,000

To donate: