Watch This Space
Ferndale Billboard to go blank?
by Nick Sousanis


For over a decade, the artist's billboard on Woodward Avenue at nine and a half mile (near Revolution and Lemberg Galleries) has taken back a bit of public space long appropriated by commercial advertisements. We are, it seems, while driving or walking in public space, confronted by brightly colored images and eye catching models, all telling us what to buy or how to think. The Ferndale billboard has been a rare breath of fresh air, highlighting a diverse field of art from that of small children to the highly conceptual.

The billboard provides an artist and the art world in general with a great deal more exposure than they might otherwise get. Undoubtedly, more people encounter this ever-changing art exhibition than pass through the DIA during a "Blockbuster" exhibition in the same time period. Heck, during the single day of the "Dream Cruise" perhaps over a million people pass by this installation. Of course there are those who ignore it and never even realize that it's there. But many look forward to the next artist's premiere like the changing of the seasons. Some are angered by the message an artist may bring to it. And some have their day brightened by a bit of color or lingering thought.

Due to a lack of funding it is likely that this storied landmark may once again become just another placeholder for ads shouting at us what we should buy.

For supporters of this space, this may not be a total cause for despair, as this space has changed hands several times over its history and perhaps a new patron may come to its aid. The billboard began its artistic existence when Revolution Gallery opened its doors in 1994. At first the billboard was primarily designed to run in conjunction with the current exhibition. The artist showing was given the opportunity - the challenge - to take on a different venue and make an artistic leap. If a particular artist didn't end up designing the space, Revolution centered it around a particular theme to tie into the show - or an entirely different conceptual piece altogether.

Paul Kotula of Revolution, states that this "gave Revolution a chance to let people know what was going on inside their space." It also helped to "control what went on the side of the building," and was a means of offering "a gift to the community." Truthfully, none of them really wanted commercial advertisement on that wall.

After several years of running the billboard, Revolution passed it on to Real Detroit Weekly, who maintained it for a brief spell. Then in 2000, neighbor gallery Lemberg took it over, putting their own stamp on the space. In 2002 a non-profit entity called "the Public Art Project" was formed to handle the operation of running the billboard. With funding for the arts being cut drastically on the state level and not enough coming from other donors, the organization simply can't come up with the money at the present time to host the space and offer the artist a stipend.

I was fortunate enough, after writing about wildly different takes on this outdoor canvas - to make my own mark on this 7 by 23 foot outdoor canvas. (For more info click here.) One of the more interesting experiences in making the piece has been explaining it to people outside of the art community. One woman kept asking me, quite sincerely, "What's it for?" When I said there was no product, no service to sell, she seemed mystified. "Do you hope to get some job out of it?" Again, I had no specific answer. While it might lead to future exhibitions, all I could tell her is that it might be a joyful diversion for someone's daily commute - a little reminder of the creative expression we are all capable of - something perhaps hard to remember while stuck in traffic.

The billboard represents a positive outlet for creation and an important aspect of our community. One hopes that not only does it find continued patronage and persist in being a showcase for artistic expression, but that its existence spurs the development of other venues for art in our public spaces.

The billboard is installed at the SW corner of Woodward and Maplehurst in Ferndale, approximately at 9 1/2 mile. The offices of the Public Art Project are located in Lemberg Gallery at 23241 Woodward Avenue in Ferndale. For additional information contact them at (248)591-6623.

The billboard has been featured in MASS MoCA's restrospective exhibition catalogue "Billboard: Art on the Road" and Dennis Nawrocki's book "Art in Detroit Public Places."






© 2002