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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. (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. (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. (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.

Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts. She writes about art and culture, online...

3 replies on “A Family Auction House’s Rise and Fall as a Microhistory of Detroit”

  1. Sarah Rose Sharp, I think that you
    need to get your facts straight before you publish a story like this.

    Norman Levy Associates provided a suite of professional and reliable services
    that where embedded with humane, compassionate, sensitivity to many small
    family firms to large corporations in need. Norman Levy Associates was
    NOT a failed company who suffered a hostile takeover. We sold it in an
    effort to grow the business of providing reliable, predictable, quality
    services in the valuation and monetization space.

    Our priorities were to provide a safe and rewarding environment for those who
    worked at NLA, as well as the best possible results for both the entrepreneurs
    and the employees of industrial based companies.

    Our space was not farm equipment, but industrial and manufacturing
    equipment. It was Katie, Norman’s granddaughter, who collected all
    of the ads, not Lilly, his wife.

    Lastly, the name of the company was Norman Levy Associates, Inc., that at least, I
    would have expected you to get right.

    I think that you have a responsibility to your readers to do better research
    before you publish a story. You can debate opinion, but not facts, which
    you have clearly mis-represented as there is very little accuracy within your
    article. I would have been happy to discuss this with you, but you did
    not reach out to me, or the people who were close to the epicenter of this
    company’s existence. That is irresponsible reporting.

    Katie, your corrective comments are welcome as you, and the family, have
    been mis-represented and inaccurately described in the above article.

    Robert Levy

    Principal and President of Norman Levy Associates.

    1. Hello Sir,
      Sorry about the errors in this piece! I am working on getting them corrected. You clearly care deeply about your business, and I apologize if I have characterized it in a way that has caused you distress. I understand your concerns and working with editorial to correct the missteps in my piece. Thanks for your understanding!
      – SRS

      1. Thank you for your reply. I do care greatly for my old company and the people it touched. I would be happy to have a conversation with you in order to clarify points, should you like.
        Robert Levy
        robertl594@aol.com

Comments are closed.