Meet Susanne Hilberry

Location: Ferndale, Michigan
Age: 66
Marital Status: Married
Education: Undergraduate degree from Wayne State University. Masters in architectural history from Yale

Susanne, herself, was discovered at an early age. Sam Wagstaff, a legendary figure in the international art world of the 1970s and ’80s, selected Susanne as his apprentice and assistant at the Detroit Institute of Arts when she was in her 20s. Sam introduced Susanne to some of the most talented artists in Detroit, and Susanne started her own gallery in 1976, at the age of 31, to showcase their works. Thirty-five years later the gallery still thrives and Susanne has been called as the ‘Grand Dame of the Detroit Art scene,’ by Detroit’s Metro Times.

Did you go to art school before opening your gallery?

I went to many schools. I started at the University of California in Berkeley, then I went to the University of Michigan. I eventually got my undergraduate degree at Wayne State University and went to graduate school at Yale for architectural history.

After you graduated from Yale, you moved to Detroit?

Yes. I was working at the Detroit Institute of Arts as an assistant to a very remarkable man named Sam Wagstaff. He’d been a curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and then came to Detroit. He was an important photography collector and sold a major portion of his collection to the Getty for $5 million. There was recently a film made about him.

Why did you open an art gallery?

It seemed as if an enormous amount of really interesting work was being kept out of Detroit. 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 really weren’t galleries of note in Detroit at that time?

There were, but their focus wasn’t on the young, emerging artists. There certainly was a small gallery scene here but there was room for more to be shown.

When did you open your gallery?

December, 1976. I started it in Birmingham, Michigan, and now I’m in Ferndale, Michigan, which is closer to Detroit. Ferndale is the first community north of the infamous 8-mile road.

What happened with your interest in architectural history?

The interest continued but really got turned around when I met Sam. Sam’s connections were to artists of my generation. Seeing what they were doing in their studios was so exciting to me, I realized that’s really what I wanted to do. Early on, I showed the work of Tony Smith, an artist that Sam had championed. Because of Sam and a patron named Hawkins Ferry, there is a remarkable piece called Gracehoper in front of the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Over the years has your focus changed?

I think for many reasons my interest has remained with younger artists, but now these generations are obviously younger than I am.

Are you married?

Yes. I have been married since 1985.

Do you have children?

I don’t have any children. My husband has two daughters. Susan is a physiologist at Boston University and Katie is a Unitarian minister in California. They’re very interesting women.

What does your husband do?

He was in the cutting tool business. He has since retired.

Do you have siblings?

Two brothers. One in New York City, one in Chicago. The one in New York was in the advertising business and now he’s a furniture restorer. He’s been doing some work for the New York Historical Society and the Met.

How do you define your style?

My style has a ragamuffin quality. I don’t mean I look like I sleep in my clothes, but I really want to feel comfortable. I can’t stand to get dressed up. Whatever I put on in the morning, I wear wherever I go. And it always seems to work. Still, I want to feel like a woman, looking feminine is important to me.

Who are your favorite designers?

I like to wear Junya Watanabe. I think he’s a brilliant designer. I’m interested in the geometry and the way it gets obscured. I’ve been wearing him for 20 years. I’m just happier in his clothes than anybody else’s.

Do you have a favorite piece?

A fabulous, funny John Galliano grey, wool flannel top with silky spaghetti straps. It looks like it’s torn and the material is inside out. It has little white [adornments] all over it that look like either lint or snowflakes. It’s kind of too big for me but I like that. It’s become a favorite.

Do you wear color?

Not very often. I have some orange pieces from four or five years ago and I bought a Commes purple, sequined t-shirt the other day. But when I put it on I don’t really feel as comfortable as I do in my black t-shirt.

How has your style evolved over the years?

In the ’60s, so many people looked divine with their skinny legs and mini skirts. I just didn’t. It felt really creepy. Now I don’t wear things that I don’t feel comfortable in. It took a long time, but I’m much more comfortable with myself.

Where do you like to shop?

I like Linda Dresner’s store because there are a lot of beautiful things to look at. I can’t stand to go shopping but I love places like this where you can go in and prowl around. You can get something or not get something. It’s a quiet, lean place. The people are really nice and Linda is generous, funky, lively and intelligent with just a lovely sense of humor.

Do you color your hair?

I don’t do anything to it. It’s kind of grey-silver. I don’t want to be troubled, but also decades ago I dyed my hair darker and it looked awful.

Do you have a signature perfume?

For a long time I was wearing Patchouli by Santa Maria Novella. And then for awhile I was hooked on Patchouly by Etro. Now I’m into the incense of Commes des Garcons. It smells like church to me, like when the man goes down the aisle and shakes his incense. I like to mix fragrances on top of one another, kind of like the way you get dressed.

Do you wear lipstick?

Lately I’ve been using pencils. I use one in ‘Cognac’ by Senna and ‘Dark Chianti’ by Milani.

What’s your skincare routine?

Soap and water. I’ve been using Melograno soap by Santa Maria Novella. For moisturizer, I can go from Oil of Olay to La Prairie. I’ve bought them all. Some of them are rich and creamy and give a certain glow but then they are too greasy.

What inspires you?

The beautiful things that artists make inspire me. Looking at them gives me ideas. There are certain friends I have that are so intelligent and special. They inspire me.

Do you have a favorite book?

The Master, by an Irish writer named Colm Toibin. It’s about the life of novelist, Henry James. It’s an interpretive, fictionalized biography about his failure in the theater, his fantasies and longings for things that are unrealized. The atmosphere of the book is so dream-like and yet so powerful.

Do you have a favorite restaurant?

Annam. It’s Vietnamese. It’s so interesting the way it was put together on a very modest budget. The food is thoughtful, exquisite and beautifully presented. They have some lovely wines that are not the grand Burgandies and Bordeaux of the world, but they’re beautifully chosen with the food and the clientele in mind. Last night I was there and had a lotus stem salad—crunchy, pickled and all piled up.

What’s your favorite secret place?

The Swimming Hole on Belle Isle—a beautiful homestead island park in the Detroit River. It hasn’t been taken care of in the way it should have been, but I like to overlook that and imagine what it was or could be.

Do you go to a spa?

I have an amazing massage therapist named Kelly Haskee. She really understands the anatomy of a body. Although she’s a small, delicate person she gives the firmest massage.

What do you do to stay fit?

Anusara Yoga. My teacher, Sarah Davidson, is deep, informed, kind and knowledgeable. She teaches classes at two yoga studios in the area and also does private lessons.

Do you have a passion project?

A new museum in downtown Detroit called MOCAD, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Its three years old and has a new director who is a wonderful, intelligent man and doing a remarkable job. It’s in a big, raw, old automobile showroom yet somehow a very comfortable space. I’m very proud to work with them.

How do you rejuvenate?

Reading 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. I also like spending time with my dog. We have two, but my favorite—I’ve decided that I can say that at my age—is Ida, an 11-year old standard poodle. She doesn’t look like a groomed poodle. She has dreadlocks. Ida is my real friend.

  • Elaine Dobrowolski

    I would have enjoyed meeting Susanne Hilberry.