by Jim Welke @

With all the benighted talk of art as a luxury Detroit can do without (it isn’t and it can’t) appearing in the local and national press as the city stumbles through an unprecedented bankruptcy, The Museum of New Art is hard at work to quietly expand the horizons of contemporary art in metro Detroit.

The museum, which began as a closet in the back of Galerie Blu in Pontiac Michigan in 1996, now resides in a rambling multi-room gallery space there. But MONA, as the museum is known by acronym, intends to branch out and expand its reach and influence. Recently, a devoted supporter and generous donor, Paul Smith, launched a satellite location adjacent to his residence in Armada Michigan with gallery, studio, and living space for artists in residence. And Mr. Smith, who wears the hat of Project Director, intends to launch two more venues for MONA: one in a rambling, restored 19th century home in Troy Michigan, and another in downtown Detroit.

Before you draw further conclusions about Mr. Smith, know this: he holds a PhD, deals with psychological disorders for a living and in so doing built a formidable business venture. It seems evident that Mr. Smith brings to his undertakings the savvy and gimlet-eyed objectivity of a businessman combined with the academic and practical application of humanpsychology. He’s no starry-eyed dreamer. Now, he intends to help render MONA a going concern, and if his past is prologue, he will.

As Curator at MONA, Jessica Hopkins brings fresh perspective to the selection of works that appear in MONA shows, winnowing the rafts of artists’ work down to the select few that make into an exhibition gallery with an eye towards thematic consistency and overall quality. Nicole Batchik, Assistant to the Directors, brings logistical support and legwork that keep MONA’s wheels turning.

MONA operates as a 501(c)3 non-profit. The museum depends on patrons like Paul Smith to live and breath. But the museum would never have been born were it not for the almost compulsive persistence of the iconoclast artist Jef Bourgeau. He stood alone in that closet in Pontiac in 1996 and convinced art mavens around the world that he stood in a museum. He seeks to re-define the term museum — "The museum is the medium," the web page for MONA’s planned August art auction asserts. Note those words, they matter. It should also be noted that the notion of museum as medium precedes MONA. Art historians and curators devote significant mental energy to formulating that idea, and in so doing, breathe new life into art museums and make them more than repositories of the past.

Before the inception of MONA and since, Mr. Bourgeau created digital art the hard way: pixel-by-pixel. He worked in the digital realm before posterize, de-alias, de-speckle, anti-alias, apply lens, edge detect, and gradient flare entered the lexicon.

Mr. Bourgeau paints with mastery too, not to mention irony and wit. And he puts on conceptual and installation shows that startle, offend, and more often delight. Always he provokes us to rethink and reform our interpretations of objects in museums and galleries and the forces that put those objects there.

As he traversed the art landscape, Mr. Bourgeau tipped over a few pedestals, including his own. But he propped his back up while he continues to kick down the status quo. The short form press of today often portrays him as a prankster, but that impression seems deeply mistaken when one takes a close look at his oeuvre. As should any artist worth the appellation, he questions everything that constitutes the cultural milieu in which he operates. If the museum is the medium, one might also argue in the case of Mr. Bourgeau, so is the artist. Sometimes to his peril, but with the courage of true conviction he cuts his own path through a dense thicket of critics, reporters, curators, gallery operators, and collectors. He rejects the imperative to go along to get along. For the advancement of art — "truth and beauty" at large — that constitutes the only true path forward. The work of Mr. Bourgeau, nuanced and subtle — if not sometimes inscrutable and ironic — stands the test of time. Like all art able to span eras, it harbors deep commentary on human nature, and that commentary resonates — if not overtly, then covertly, in the subconscious of viewers. His work sells, and for good reason.

Mr. Bourgeau may have conceived The Museum of New Art as a lark, but like any organization, it developed a life of its own. Over the last sixteen years or so, the museum put up regular exhibitions of work by metro-Detroit and other artists in a non-commercial setting. In 2000 MONA achieved non-profit status, and in May 2001, MONA occupied the venerable Book Building in downtown Detroit where it renovated the ten thousand square foot second floor and brought in such shows as DOCUMENTA USA, Art as Game as Art: Current and Past Works by Lucio Pozzi, and Ground Zero. The Book Building space shut its doors for good in 2004 when the landlord refused to renew the lease. That brought MONA back to Pontiac, where it currently resides at 7 N Saginaw St, with several galleries spread between the first and second floors. It’s an impressive array of rooms, and in them MONA often hosts simultaneous exhibitions, including Cranbrook Academy of Art student exhibitions that offer nascent artists real-world exposure and the criticism that goes with it.

Going forward, MONA’s got ambitious plans, including:

1) ART AUCTION: a fundraiser for MONA, the auction will sell donated artworks from around the planet, and includes work by Uta Barth, Pae White, the Gao Brothers, and Annette Lemieux, Gilda Snowden, Stephen Magsig, and Peter Williams. Apparently, quite a few artists believe in MONA, and auction attendees will validate that conviction and take home some nice art. It happens in Armada Michigan at MONA North in Armada on August 24th, from 6 to 10pm.

2) DOCUMENTA USA, (a reprise of the show first held in the Book Building; note uppercase title) collects archival material from artists that relates to their prior shows — catalogues, images, curricula vitae, reviews — and puts them on display much the same as documenta in Kassel, Germany (most recently Documenta 13 in June-2012; note lowercase title, which derives from Bauhaus convention, eschewed by MONA). Also in variance with Kassel, MONA devotes DOCUMENTA USA to documentary material placed in archival boxes. The show opens 28-September and runs 100 days. Remarkably, the exhibited materials refresh every 100 minutes. Visitors open the artist submitted archival boxes and discover the contents. Long-time art critic Jerry Saltz will be guest speaker and roving raconteur. OPENING September 28th, from 6 to 10pm,

3) APERTO: (Italian for "open") artists are invited to visit MONA and hang one of their works on a wall, where it remains until another artist decides to replace it with one of their own. The event brings disparate artists together in a festive, self-curated setting. Part of the festivities at DOCUMENTA USA, on September 28th.

4) The Prinzhorn Prize: First presented in 2009, MONA grants this prize annually. The museum invites nominations of influential artists, and an independent jury selects six recipients to receive the prize and exhibit work at MONA. Named for Hans Prinzhorn, a German psychiatrist who formed a collection of artwork made by mentally ill patients at the Heidelberg psychiatric hospital. Jean Dubuffet and others found merit in the work and termed it "art brut (fr.)," later referred to as "outsider art" in English. The Nazi’s displayed several of these in their propagandistic show, Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art).

5) Online database of metro Detroit and Michigan artists: open to all, the database will aid research and documentation of local art history.

6) artCORE: first done in 2003 at seven locations, artCORE renovates and installs artworks in vacant downtown storefronts, and opens them to visitors. Visitors see art they would not otherwise have seen, and lifeless storefronts transform from city liability to asset.

7) Changing Cities: Detroit artists exchange places (studios, residences) with artists from other cities around the world. To date, exchanges with the following cities occurred: Chicago, Bregenz, Berlin, and Beijing. This stirs the pot of creativity and synergy, adding regional flavors to local art brews.

8) Detroit Film Festival: bleeding edge features, documentaries, and shorts screened in various Detroit metro locations

9) Detroit Performance Festival: Performance artists from around the world will be invited to join those here in Michigan to display their unique and seldom seen art.

10) Art Truck: Much like a Book Mobile, only this truck will bring exhibitions, workshops, and guerrilla art to the people.

11) Youth Workshops: for inner city kids at MONA North in Armada Michigan, a bucolic 60-acre escape from urban pressure.

12) KICK OUT THE JAMS 2: 35 years later, a new, stunning survey and update to the original exhibition that will survey the region's counter-culture including artists, musicians, poets and writers.

So, after a few meetings with Mr. Bourgeau, Mr. Smith, and Ms. Hopkins, that’s this writer’s spin on MONA. 

Art begets commerce, and commerce begets art, Detroit history proves that much: the Detroit Institute of Arts sprang from the inspiration of enlightened titans of industry (and their equally enlightened and persistent wives), and the first exhibition they put on was sanctioned by self-appointed arbiters of purity who insisted that paintings of nude women in the inaugural exhibition be covered with drapes. That episode passed into obscurity and the museum remained to become a preeminent force in the city.

But that was over a hundred years ago. Now, in addition to homes for essential historical works, prosperous cities cultivate modern art museums with never seen before programs that compel us to contemplate the modern society we create. Smart people migrate to vibrant places. And vibrancy does not exist without contemporary art. So forget zero-sum, more is better.

MONA currently has a show on at the Pontiac location called, "THREE-FOR-ONE: 1)THE MEMORY OF SKIN by Ann Sunwoo / 2)THE MASTERPIECES: new work by Odu Nakkara / 3)TIME @ DCCP, Juror: Bill Schwab" up thru 10-August. 

And on 24-August, they will hold their benefit Art Auction from 6-10PM at 15655 33 Mile Road, Armada MI 48005. Remember, these are non-profit, non-commercial endeavors that bring you world-class art — let’s show these hard-working people some love.


MONA North - Armada Site Announced: The Museum of New Art (MONA) is about to launch its most ambitious venture ever, building a state of the art museum space from which to launch its programming throughout the region, having its footprint in Macomb and Oakland counties as well as Detroit.

MONA was founded by artists for artists in 1967. It is a non-profit 501(c)3 museum (tax deductible) whose mission over the last decade has brought new art to Detroit and the region, while facilitating wider interaction of local artists with a broader regional and global audience -- all with little to no funding. .


  • artCORE: turning Detroit’s empty storefronts into artist collectives;
  • DOCUMENTA USA: biannual of Detroit artists alongside the world’s;
  • Changing Cities: swap Detroit artists with those from other cities (until now: Chicago, Bregenz, Berlin, and Beijing);
  • Detroit International Film Festival;
  • Prinzhorn Prize: 4 influential artists chosen to exhibit in Detroit;
  • APERTO: any Detroit artist invited to exhibit in the museum. 


  • Create an Internet database for Detroit/Michigan artists and research/document our past history of artists and create an online codex
  • Pop-up satellites and cultural events throughout the city
  • MONA North: think tank of local artists to develop innovative art ideas to be realized downtown and throughout the region
  • Workshops for Detroit’s youth on 60 acres of land, woods and river
  • Detroit Performance Festival
  • Detroit Photo Festival
  • Art Truck, putting regional art on wheels and using it much like the famous art trains of past -- only being completely mobile and able to travel throughout Detroit and the region: to events, schools, and those areas least exposed to current art. Like a Book Mobile only for art.
  • KICK OUT THE JAMS 2: a comprehensive survey of current artists working in the region - with catalog


Museum Staff:

Jef Bourgeau
Creative Director and Artist-in-Residence -


Paul Smith
Project Director -


Jessica Hopkins
Curator -


Nicole Batchik
Assistant to the Directors -



15655 33 Mile Road, Armada MI  48005