Down to a Fine Art: In Conversation with JJ Curis

Director, Library Street Collective, Detroit, MI

From finance to fine art – how one woman helped kick-start the cultural revival in downtown Detroit.

By: Michael Small | Photos: Hayden Stinebaugh

Curis is wearing the Ruffled Feathers Midi Skirt

Growing up in Indianapolis, JJ Curis never envisioned that she would one day play an active role in the resurgence of Detroit’s artistic community. Hell, even when she was an adult living in LA working in finance and accounting, the arts were the furthest thing from her mind. Luckily for the Motor City, Curis met her husband and moved to Detroit where she fell in love with a space that demanded to become a gallery.

Throwing caution to the wind and embracing her lack of art experience as a plus, Curis opened Library Street Collective, a gallery specializing in innovative modern and contemporary art. Five years later, LSC is at the heart of Detroit’s cultural relevance, pumping life blood into the city’s art scene. Curis is currently running the gallery as well as working in-house with Bedrock real estate, where she purchases art for public projects. We sat down with Curis to talk about the city’s relationship with art, being accepted into the culture and why she chooses sneakers over heels every time.

Curis is wearing the Straight Up Crew Tee

Kit and Ace: How did you find yourself running a gallery?

JJ Curis: I moved to Detroit seven years ago, and had always worked in accounting and finance. I decided I wanted to do something different, and so ventured into the gallery world. My husband, with a few partners, had purchased a building in downtown Detroit. We walked in the space and – I wish I had a more interesting story – just said to each other, "This would be an amazing gallery."

It was five years ago, back before downtown had really turned around, and a lot of people thought we were pretty crazy. I actually didn't have an art background at all besides being exposed to it when I was younger, but I had a complete accounting/finance/tax background. It was a completely new career for me.

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KA: Was that daunting? Just jumping right in?

JJC: I think the art industry is no different than any industry – you learn as you go. It's a lot of business, and obviously I had the background. I started talking to a lot of different people, whether they were involved in museums or galleries across the country. They all said it's better off having the business background than anything and that you can learn the art as you go.

KA: Was going in with a fresh set of eyes actually a benefit?

JJC: I think so. The galley world, along with the museum world, can be very strange... a lot of people sometimes have a negative outlook on it. It let me take a different approach. A lot of these artists are so incredibly talented, but they never had to deal with business. That's been a huge benefit to us. I wouldn't have had that if I had a different educational background in the arts. I think it has been beneficial.

KA: What’s been the biggest surprise about opening your own gallery?

JJC: I never realized the relationships and how closely connected we would become with the artists. A lot of times when these artists are coming in town to do a large project, they'll be there for a week at a time. I knew that we have business relationships with people, but I didn't realize how closely we'd become connected to them and their families on a personal level.

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KA: How would you describe the city's relationship with art?

JJC: Detroit has an incredible history with art, institutions and schools: Cranbrook, College for Creative Studies, the Detroit Institute of Arts are great examples. You still have a crazy number of large collectors, supporters and young artists that have been there for a while, but also artists that are moving here because of what Detroit stands for right now. Saying that, we still have a long way to go – there are a lot of galleries opening, but a couple years ago Detroit hardly had any galleries. Public art in Detroit – that's something we've been pushing for a while. It's not just what we've done. Appreciation for it is huge here. We've been lucky that people are very supportive of public art, and very supportive of our gallery. Openings are always crazy and you never have to worry about a lack of attendance or support in this city.

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KA: How do you see your role in Detroit’s growth?

JJC: You could say ‘right place, right time,’ but I can't tell you how many times we said we were opening a fine art gallery with higher price points and were told we’re completely out of our minds. [laughs] Looking back, we already had the vision that downtown was changing and that we were going to be one of the first to open a gallery. We had hope that maybe we were doing something good for the city. Obviously what came in the future – it was great for both the city and for us.

KA: Presentation is key at a gallery, and that goes for personal style as well. How do you describe yours?

JJC: It's usually always black, white or gray. Leather and denim but with a sporty feel. I'm always in high‑top tennis shoes. Black dresses with high‑top tennis shoes. I played tennis all the way through college. I was always in workout clothes, and so when I first entered my professional career in accounting, wearing business casual was pretty painful for me. As soon as I was out of the business casual world, I reverted back to that. Jeans that feel like like sweatpants and tank tops – the kind of style where, in my head I feel like I'm a little more dressed up, but probably not too much.

Curis is wearing the Ruffled Feathers Midi Skirt

KA: Do you see a connection between art and sport?

JJC: I know a lot of times people think you are either one or the other. That you're either athletic or artsy, or you either like to watch sports or you like to go to museums and sometimes they don't necessarily cross over. Maybe because I was into [sport] when I was younger, it’s beneficial to me in being able to educate and expose the athletics-lover to art.

KA: Finally, why is it important for you to grow your city?

JJC: Detroit is one of those places where, when you open a business, people are incredibly supportive. If you do it well, it will do well, which I don't think you can say in every city. If you do a good job, you have a good product, it’s run professionally and you really work hard to be involved in the community and give back, then you're going to be successful. Detroit has a lot of history and we have all these cultures all thrown into one area, which I think also brings a lot of interest. That's what I love about Detroit.

Curis is wearing the Straight Up Crew Tee

Find more great cultural spots in Motor City – see the List on our Detroit Showroom page.