Scarab Club’s latest rebirth emphasizes art at historic club’s heart

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published June 29, 2016

DETROIT — For an arts and culture destination, the Scarab Club’s location — directly behind the Detroit Institute of Arts, at the corner of Farnsworth and John R streets — couldn’t be more perfect.

But despite being around for more than 100 years, Scarab Club members say many people still don’t know who or what they are, or that visitors are welcome.

As the Scarab Club approaches its 110th birthday next year, officials have launched a new campaign to introduce the community to this gem in their own backyard. With help from the MARS Agency, the nonprofit Scarab Club now has a fitting new tagline — “We Know Detroit By Art” — to go along with a slightly modernized new logo, created as a collaboration between the MARS Agency and the College for Creative Studies.

Named for the Egyptian symbol of rebirth, the Scarab Club was founded in 1907 as an informal group of artists and art lovers who gathered to make and discuss art and build community. Members have included some of metro Detroit’s most prominent artists.

“We’ve been supporting contemporary art in Detroit for 109 years,” said Scarab Club Board President Duncan Campbell, of Grosse Pointe Farms, who has served as board president since June 2014. But once he began working behind the scenes, the artist, art historian and business owner said he discovered that “people didn’t know what the Scarab Club was, (and) they didn’t know it was open to (anyone to) join.”  

The club’s Arts and Crafts-style building — designed by architect and member Lancelot Sukert — opened in 1928 and, as is typical for historical buildings, it needs plenty of routine maintenance. Campbell said they recently redid the floor and installed new garden gates, and this summer, they’ll be putting in a new roof over the flat portion of the top of the building, where leaks have been a problem for some time. The roof alone is a $58,000 job, Campbell said.

To reduce costs and increase transparency, he said that during his first year as president, they streamlined their accounting practices and put their financial system and membership in the cloud, so that people could renew their membership online. He said they made their website more accessible too.

“Every dollar we save is a dollar that can be spent to promote the arts in Detroit,” Campbell said.

He said people can now submit work for shows electronically, which has doubled the number of entries and increased the geographic area from which entries come, as well as reduced staff time by 80 percent.

“We do about 24 exhibitions a year,” said Campbell, pointing out that they have three spaces in the building for different art shows. “We’re doing them all the time. It’s all about the art.”

Besides visual arts, the Scarab Club regularly offers concerts. They even have an 1878 Pleyel piano on the second floor, where concerts usually are held. Campbell said they have a blues concert series hosted by musician R.J. Spangler, and they have a chamber music series as well. The Scarab Club has been home to a number of literary events over the years, too.

“That’s one of the wonderful things about this club: There’s always something going on,” said Gallery Director Treena Flannery Ericson, of Royal Oak.

As Scarab Club regulars know, a visit isn’t complete without checking out the ceiling beams on the second-floor lounge, where legendary artists like Diego Rivera, Norman Rockwell, John Sloan, Marcel Duchamp, Reginald Marsh, Gary Grimshaw and Gilda Snowden have left their signatures.

“It’s basically our guest book of major artists,” Campbell said.

He said there are about 250 such signatures on the ceiling.

Veteran Detroit artist Charles Alexander, a Cass Technical High School graduate who served on the Scarab Club board for several years, said that the club “is really a blessing” to artists, musicians and the community in general.

“Over the years, the Scarab Club has done its job quietly and without fanfare,” he said. “This club … is a godsend to the city of Detroit, because I know firsthand that it’s done so much for so many people and continues to do so.” 

The club gives artists a place to show and sell their work, provides studios where artists can hone their talents and learn from each other, and hosts workshops, lectures and other programs.

“Even though art may be our focus, community is always at the center of everything we do,” Flannery Ericson said.

The club has about 320 members, a figure Campbell said “has basically gone up significantly over the last two years.” He said he’d love to see that figure increase to 500, and club members are trying to get more visitors in the door as well.

“This is just the beginning,” Campbell promised.

Harper Woods artist Julie Sabit, a Scarab Club board member who has been in charge of the club’s gardens — and the volunteers who help her maintain them — for the last 15 years, said they hope to attract new members through new activities and projects.

“We’re (making) the public more aware of all of the wonderful things that we do and using social media in a more effective way,” she said. “As I was working in the garden (in front of the building), people walking by would ask what we were. They think it’s a private club, but we have all of these public activities.”

There are six different membership levels ranging from $50 a year for students to $1,000.

The Scarab Club is located at 217 Farnsworth St. in Detroit, in the midtown district. For hours or more information, call (313) 831-1250 or visit www.scarabclub.org.