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DETROIT – It’s an organization rich in history and poor on public relations. The Scarab Club, which turns 110 next year, has not always done a good job of promoting itself. But thanks to a powerful new marketing campaign done gratis by the Mars Agency and promoted by Marx Layne Public Relations, the Club is hoping for a rebirth.
“When I took over as president in 2014, the (biggest issue I saw) was that no one knew who we were, where we were or what we were,” said Scarab Club President Duncan Campbell. “So the whole idea of the campaign was to increase awareness within the community we serve. We’re a club with no barriers. Everyone can join – artists, art lovers, collectors, etc.
“I saw it as really a marketing problem,” Campbell continued. “We have great programming … 24 fresh exhibitions a year. … We had all this fresh programming but no one knew about us.”
Enter the Mars Agency, which worked with the Club over an 18-month period in an effort to rebrand and rejuvenate it. The final result culminated in a strong new marketing campaign built around a simple tag line: “We know Detroit by art.”
“Any good tag line seems like you should know it already,” said Campbell. “It seems kind of familiar and accessible and kind of brilliant. But the brilliance comes in the simplicity of it … that you don’t have to think hard about it. It just seems natural.”
Trina Ericson, the Scarab Club’s gallery director, said she was impressed by the campaign the Mars Agency created.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Ericson said. “I love the fact that it finds a lovely balance between honoring the history of the club and also looking to the future and moving forward.”
Mike Odom, VP at Marx Layne, is spearheading the distribution of the campaign and promoting it to media outlets throughout the region.
A Detroit Institution
So what is the history of the Club? Need a brief refresher? The Scarab Club was formed in 1907 and originally known as the Hopkin Club after marine painter and founder Robert Hopkin. Renamed the Scarab Club in 1913, the club moved into its present clubhouse, situated right behind the Detroit Institute of Arts on Farnsworth Street, in 1928. Designed by member and architect Lancelot Sukert, the building is now a registered historic landmark.
The ceiling beams on the second floor of the classic Arts & Crafts building served for years as a guest book for the succession of notable artists who came to the club. Among them were John Sloan, Diego Rivera, Pablo Davis, Marcel Duchamp, Norman Rockwell and, more recently, Gilda Snowden and Gary Grimshaw.
Today, the Club features three galleries as well as artist studios and a lovely garden. The Club offers a vast array of arts and cultural events, programming, and experiences including exhibitions, lectures, sketch sessions, festivals and parties, chamber and blues music concerts, poetry readings and a broad range of social events. The Club is also a popular venue for private party and wedding space rentals.
Another Detroit Institution
Like the Scarab Club, Charles Alexander is a venerable Detroit institution himself. Alexander, who celebrated his 80th birthday last month, currently has an exhibit on the Scarab Club’s second floor. Titled Good Rainbow Genes: Alexander’s Art @ 80, the show runs through July 31.
Also like the Scarab Club, Alexander has a history that is equally as impressive. He was a commercial arts major at Cass Technical High School, graduating in 1955. He worked as a teacher and administrator in the Detroit Public Schools for nearly 30 years. Out and active in the LGBT community for over 50 years – long before there was such a name for it – Alexander, to put it in perspective, received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Community Pride Banquet nearly a quarter century ago.
But Alexander shows no signs of slowing down. He stills writes his popular Parting Glances column for Between The Lines – he’s written nearly 600 of them over the past 23 years – and was recently given a Metro Times Best of Detroit Award for Best Facebook Artist. There has even been a line of apparel and accessories made from his designs thanks to ArtWear Detroit.
A prolific artist, Alexander estimates he creates on average a piece a day.
“There is little conscious planning as I create my art,” Alexander said, explaining his process. “I work intuitively and rather quickly. I start with a geometric shape, a humorous or serious doodle, a fluid symbol fished from my subconscious, a newly minted hieroglyph or alphabet, sometimes a line expressive of energy and movement, and I proceed from there.
“The process is closely akin to automatic writing or, to use a label in vogue, channeling,” Alexander continued. “I become both a witness of and a conduit to creativity. My work unfolds with its own inner logic, or lack of same, of which I am only dimly aware.”
Alexander is known in artistic circles for the wonderfully whimsical names he gives to his pieces; names such as Illustration for A Medieval Poem Lost in Translation, Transgender Jesus, Image for a More-Than-Vivid Friday, Hieroglyphia and Paste Acupuncture.
“It’s sometimes problematic in that I have to really think much more about the names than actually the creation of the piece,” said Alexander. “I don’t have to think about creating a piece of art. It just flows. But I have to give some kind of thought to the name. The name should be something that gets the viewer, jogs their mentation and gets them to put their input into a piece of art. If someone asked me ‘what does this mean’ my response would be ‘what does it mean to you?’ I’m just a conduit.”
So how does Alexander create so rapidly?
“I just do it,” he said nonchalantly. “I certainly have a backlog of a lot of art. Sometimes I go back to a piece and put additional touches on it or nuances or embellishments. And sometimes I take pieces that have been done and combine them and create a new piece. What is challenging is to have a piece of art that in some way there’s a mistake or something amiss, and to use that mistake – say a spot or something – and turn that into part of the art so that it, too, contributes.”
A member of the Scarab Club for more than 10 years, Alexander has also served on the Club’s board. His current show at the Club is his fourth, and he has also participated in several juried shows in the main gallery.
“I love Charles,” said Ericson. “He’s not just a visual artist, he’s not a writer. He’s really is a renaissance man. I love the fact that when you talk to him he has a beautiful quote or a poem that he just pulls out of the air for whatever the occasion might be. He truly is just an exceptional man. In all areas of the arts he’s amazing.”
Sitting in the Scarab Club amid the 27 pieces that comprise his current show, Alexander paused for a moment of honest reflection.
“Being 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 never bothered me,” he said. “Being 80 bothers me somewhat. Physically I may be 80, but mentally I feel like I’m 38, 39, or 40. That’s where my thinking is at. And of course it crosses your mind ‘how much time do I have left to be creative? What’s going to happen next? What will happen to my art? Where will it go?'”
Though such questions cannot possibly be answered in a newspaper story, the writer would like to think that through the volumes of written word he has penned and the thousands of pieces of art he has created, that Alexander will, in a sense, live on for ages to come. That perhaps he will even, artistically speaking, be immortal.