Susanne Hilberry, influential gallery owner

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Susanne Hilberry, whose eponymous contemporary-art gallery in Ferndale was widely thought to be Michigan’s most-influential, died Aug. 13 of complications from a brain tumor. She was 72.

Petite and always looking rather more Manhattan than Oakland County in chic black, Hilberry had the great gallerist’s knack for spotting talent before anyone else.

She championed local artists like Scott Hocking and Corine Vermeuelen when they were young and unknown, and brought the same reach to some on the national stage like Joel Shapiro.

“Susanne was one of these people whose eye I trusted without reservation,” says Gregory M. Wittkopp, the former director of the Cranbrook Art Museum who now heads the Cranbrook Center for Collections & Research.

“Even when I didn’t initially react positively to work she had on display,” he adds, “in the end, I always came around and understood.”

Hilberry studied art history at Wayne State University and got her master’s in architectural history at Yale.

Her first job in the early seventies promised great things — Hilberry worked as assistant to Sam Wagstaff, the daring and controversial contemporary-art curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts who later became famous as Robert Mapplethorpe’s lover.

Hilberry first opened her gallery in 1976 in Birmingham, on the lower level in the 555 S. Old Woodard tower. In 2002, she moved into her modernist, airy space on Livernois in Ferndale.

The new gallery seemed to re-energize her, recalls Wittkopp, who knew Hilberry over 30 years.

“After she moved,” he says, “she seemed to really renew her commitment to young and emerging artists based in this area.”

Wittkopp admired the depth of Hilberry’s artistic interests, and her willingness to broaden art’s reach.

“Susanne wanted to educate and to make art accessible,” he says. “She’d often show work that was very reasonably priced, as if to say, ‘Hey — this isn’t just for wealthy collectors. Buy it and make it a part of your life.’ ”