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Susanne Hilberry, Pioneering Detroit Art Dealer, Dies at 72


Susanne Hilberry.

Susanne Hilberry, who for four decades ran an eponymous contemporary art gallery in Detroit where she showed both internationally renowned figures and local artists, died on Thursday at a hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, from complications of a brain tumor. She was 72. Her death was reported in the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.

The list of artists who had one-person shows at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery is long and impressive, and includes Tony Smith, Joel Shapiro, Judy Pfaff, Richard Artschwager, Lee Krasner, Alex Katz, Lynda Benglis, Elizabeth Murray, Michael E. Smith, Kate Levant, Anne-Lise Coste, and Andrew Masullo.

Hilberry was born in Chicago in 1943, where her father was studying medicine. Her parents were originally from Detroit and moved the family back there when she was around five.

Before venturing into the art business, Hilberry began working at the Detroit Institute of Arts around 1970,  where she served as an assistant to the storied curator and collector Sam Wagstaff, then the museum’s curator of contemporary art, who would go on to be a patron and lover of Robert Mapplethorpe. “[H]e was a really extraordinary presence in many, many, many ways,” Hilberry said in 2010 interview for an oral history project. “They weren’t all good but they were all—they weren’t always totally responsible, but they were always stimulating. I kind of wormed my way into working for him.”

Encouraged by Wagstaff, who was known for his support of adventurous new art, Hilberry opened her gallery in December 1976 in Birmingham, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. “It seemed as if an enormous amount of really interesting work was being kept out of Detroit,” Hilberry said in another 2010 interview, when asked what compelled her to start her gallery. “I wanted to show work I really believed in, work that might have been shown in New York, but wasn’t being shown here.” There were galleries in the city at the time, she said, but “there was room for more to be shown.”

In 2002, she moved the gallery to a larger, airy space in Ferndale, Michigan, just north of the city’s famed 8 Mile Road (of which one can get a sense of in this video). “It really reflected her sensibilities down to the last detail,” a professor of art at Wayne State University told the Detroit News. (She held a master’s from Yale in architectural history, and a degree in art history from Wayne State.)

Hilberry also played an influential role in founding the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. She encouraged its inaugural board president, Marsha Miro, to help create it, according to the Free Press. It opened in 2006, and Hilberry later served as a steering committee member there.

Over 39 years in business (a run that few dealers ever achieve), Hilberry was admired for keeping an eye on young talent, balancing shows of canonized artists with those of promising upstarts. “I think for many reasons my interest has remained with younger artists, but now these generations are obviously younger than I am,” she once told an interviewer. (I do not think it was a coincidence that, when, a few years ago, I asked young artists and curators who had lived in Detroit to recommend places to visit there, every single one pointed me to her gallery.)

The Free Press wrote that her “chic black clothes and shock of grayish-white hair…made her as visually distinctive as some of the work in her gallery,” and that she “was an inveterate consumer of culture.” When not working, she said, she enjoyed “[r]eading my book, watching a fabulous movie or going to a concert. I’ve been exposed to lots of the bands that young people listen to.”

A 2005 New York Times article had her recounting a trip she took to a five-day silent retreat at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. “On the fourth day I got completely crazy,” she said, “and what I did was hire a taxi and went to see the Mount,” a mansion that once belonged to Edith Wharton. “Then I went to the nicest restaurant in Lenox and had several glasses of red Burgundy, and then went back and felt like I had been really bad.” Nevertheless, she said, ”I did feel at times some wonderful sense of profound quiet, even though I wasn’t following the rules with rigor.”

Hilberry is survived by two stepdaughters, two brothers, two nephews, and a niece, according to the News. Her husband, Richard Kandarian, who had been in the cutting tool business, died last year. According to the Free Press, her business will continue to operate, with her longtime director Hazel Blake now running it. Its name will remain Susanne Hilberry Gallery.

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