Articles

A Family Auction House’s Rise and Fall as a Microhistory of Detroit

Installation view of 'Fate of the Machinery' with the auction listings laid out in a complete chronology over decades, forming a history of objects sold at the Levy family auction house.
Installation view of ‘Fate of the Machinery’ with the auction listings laid out in a complete chronology over decades, forming a history of objects sold at the Levy family auction house. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — It is the pitiful fate of objects to serve as proxies for our failed dreams, relationships, and ambitions. This concept is acutely present throughout Fate of the Machinery, a project by Kate Levy that has evolved over the course of a month at the gallery 9338 Campau in Hamtramck. The objects in this case are represented by auction listings, which comprise the complete record of transactions handled by Norman Levy Associates, Inc. the auction house that sustained the artist’s family for two generations before, ironically, sliding into decline after selling out to a “strategic buyer” (according to Kate Levy’s uncle, Robert Levy, who worked at his father Norman’s company) in the late 1990s.

Installation view of 'Fate of the Machinery' with the auction listings laid out in a complete chronology over decades, forming a history of objects sold at the Levy family auction house.
Installation view of ‘Fate of the Machinery’ with the auction listings laid out in a complete chronology over decades, forming a history of objects sold at the Levy family auction house. (click to enlarge)

These listings are charmingly archaic, ranging backward in time to deal with industrial equipment, going through an early electronics bust in the 1970s, cataloguing the microcosmic rises and falls in the bigger picture of Detroit’s economic roller coaster. Different forms of mapping time and place crop up frequently around 9338 Campau gallerist Steve Panton. His former location, 2739 Edwin, featured “Hamtramck Redact” by Andrew Thompson, which involved a charcoal rendering of Hamtramck that evolved over the course of a month. Panton himself creates elaborate, research-based installations by arranging items found in the stacks at the Detroit Public Library or collected during his daily walks along the Hamtramck train tracks, as with “Railroad.”

“I think that in broad terms Kate is interested in mapping how the past influences the present. I am too,” Panton says of Levy’s show. “There’s a part of the project that’s looking at the specifics of deindustrialization by tracing the thousands of industrial auctions that her family’s business conducted. The sheer scale of this history is staggering, but also surprisingly moving. It’s hard to look at it without thinking of all of the people that were impacted.”

This “mapping” takes the form of clippings documenting every auction listing for the business, obsessively collected by Levy from Detroit Free Press microfilm archives, and just as obsessively reconstructed in chronological order along several walls of the gallery. A second aspect of the show is a manuscript compiling images, documents, and interviews conducted by Levy with her family, exploring their attitudes toward money, class, and race. Says Panton: “Ultimately, it’s looking at value systems in a city with massive inequalities of wealth.” Visitors to the gallery are invited to annotate by hand a version of the manuscript.

Excerpt from Kate Levy's manuscript, which she invites gallery attendees to audit with comments.
Excerpt from Kate Levy’s manuscript, which she invites gallery attendees to audit with comments. (click to enlarge)

The third element of the show is a series of discussion sessions (organized in collaboration with Hamtramck Free School) dealing with aspects of the wider economics being touched upon by Kate’s works. They have included a presentation by and discussion with Rutgers Professor Beryl Satter, author of Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America; a reading of a section of the book Capitalism and the Jews, which has been particularly influential on Levy’s thinking for the show; a panel about sustainable economies featuring local activists; and readings from the zine Fate of the Machinery, which Levy is assembling over the course of the project and that illustrates her research to date.

That Panton and Levy are so dedicated to incorporating elements of continuing education and ongoing analysis with the work on display underscores the sense that those unaware of the past are doomed to repeat it. At a moment when Detroit finds itself dangerously near the auction block, Fate of the Machinery is a timely reminder that the “benefits” of capitalism are not without backlash; the fate of the machines may be ours to share.

Excerpt from Kate Levy's manuscript, which she invites gallery attendees to audit with comments.
Excerpt from Kate Levy’s manuscript, which she invites gallery attendees to audit with comments. (click to enlarge)

Fate of the Machinery continues at 9338 Campau (9338 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck, Michigan) through October 10.

Correction: This piece originally misstated the name of the auction house, the reason for its demise, and who collected the auction listings used in the project. The errors have been fixed.

comments (0)