Archival photograph of artist Isamu Noguchi signing the beam at the Scarab Club in 1979 (all photos Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)

DETROIT — Art clubs were a popular phenomenon around the turn of the 20th century, cropping up in major cities across the US. Several, like the National Arts Club in New York (est. 1898) and the California Art Club in Los Angeles (est. 1909) are still in operation, some 100 years later. But the Scarab Club in Detroit (est. 1907) has something that no other art club has: a collection of art world signatures that spans nearly a century.

In its inception, the club was held at locations around the city, until an official “clubhouse” was formed in October 1928. Club members oversaw and executed all aspects of the building’s design, construction, and architectural and decorative elements — including assigning the role of head architect to Lancelot Sukert (1888–1966), who was chosen for the honor by the body of club member architects. It is unclear who had the original idea for the “guest book” — the sides and ceiling beams of the second-floor lounge where distinguished guests and important local and visiting artists have been invited to add their signature — although signature books and autograph collecting were common pastimes of the era.

“The building opened in 1928, that’s when it started,” said MaryAnn Wilkinson, retired Scarab Club executive director who was recently succeeded by Kathryn Dimond, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “All the guys who were in the club at that time put their name on the beams and identified beams in the ceiling that they wanted to decorate.” In addition to the wealth of artist signatures, the ceiling’s crossbeams are decorated in an array of styles, especially the Art Deco and Egyptology motifs that were popular in the 1920s. But these are a secondary attraction to the beams adorned with hundreds of signatures, including those of Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Leroy Foster, Margaret Bourke-White, and the most recent, Detroit artist Cledie Taylor.

“We’ve always had music, we’ve always had literary events,” said Wilkinson. “That’s part of the Scarab Club DNA. It’s not as visual artists, but it’s all the artists. Bill Porter signed the beam. He was a major designer for GM, and he’s retired now, but he’s a super big deal in the Detroit automotive world.”

The Scarab Club second-floor lounge is open to the public, so people can visit the “guest book” signed into the beams.

In terms of who has been called upon to sign the beams, the decisions seem to have been made spontaneously and at random — either when an artist of import was visiting Detroit or through a mysterious internal process of determination by the club itself. It is a process that Wilkinson acknowledges is not without flaws and historic biases, and today, the Scarab Club is making a concerted effort to create a more equitable record for the future.

“There are so many people in Detroit who should have signed the beam already,” said Wilkinson. “So many people we’ve lost who haven’t signed the beam. We’re trying now to sort of fill in the gaps and catch some people who are at the very end of their life or their career, like Cledie [Taylor], or Dell [Pryor], or Shirley [Woodson]. Not very many women represented, as you might imagine, so we’re working on that, and there are not very many African-American artists represented. So we’re working on that balance.”

But, she sighs, “we’ve got a whole long list of people who should sign the beam. And the other thing is that we’re running out of space.”

According to their founding proposal from 1909, membership to the club was open to artists and “those who, though lacking such skills, wish to support the arts.” The document cites examples of such Detroiters: Robert Tannahill, Dexter M. Ferry Jr., William Valentiner, and Clyde Burroughs. Though the document does not explicitly exclude anyone based on race or gender, it was a men-only club until 1962. The first cohort of women artists was inducted in an action organized by Patricia Hill-Burnett — founder of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW), as well as a sculptor and portraitist whose subjects included Gloria Steinem, Margaret Thatcher, and Rosa Parks — and included Marion Aston, Florence Maiullo-Barnes, Winifred Klarin, Maria Lalli, Elizabeth Payne, Reva Shwayder, and Irene Toth.

The Scarab Club has no official record of how many total signatures grace the beams, though the number is in the hundreds, with only a small fraction of posthumous additions, including that of beloved art world doyenne Gilda Snowden, whose sudden and unexpected passing continues to be mourned by generations of artists who saw her as a beacon within the community. American graphic artist Gary Grimshaw also had his signature added to the beams of the Scarab Club posthumously in 2014.

The signatures do more than preserve a record of guests to the space; they carry with them a wealth of stories and history, many of which the Scarab Club is doing its best to maintain in a growing document that compiles research on the signatories.

For example, there is the tale of Pablo S. Davis, née Paul Meier Kleinbord, from Philadelphia. Legend has it that as a teenager in 1932, Davis hopped a train to Detroit in hopes of meeting Diego Rivera, who was working on his iconic Detroit Industry Murals commission at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). Allegedly, Frida Kahlo discovered Davis sitting on the steps of the DIA and took him inside to introduce him to Rivera, who subsequently brought him on as an assistant. Davis decided to cement this piece of his legacy by signing the beams literally on top of Rivera’s signature, despite the fact that, according to Wilkinson, his proximity to the famous artist might have been a bit overstated.

“He dined out on that story for years,” she said. “But it’s not true.”

Artist Marcel Duchamp’s signature on the beam, added in 1961
Photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White’s signature on the beam, just above that of Isamu Noguchi

French-American painter Marcel Duchamp signed the Scarab Club beams in 1961, just a handful of years before his death, during a revival of interest in his work in the 1960s. Contemporary artist and film director Matthew Barney signed the beams in 2013, in the midst of years of work in Detroit on River of Fundament.

Detroit is a place that manages to balance incredibly influential cultural production with an economic downturn that left much of its history intact (if subject to entropy). At the nearby Motown Museum, walking tours through the conjoined houses that once held the international hit-machine Motown Records culminate in the studio — the same studio where the who’s-who of Hitsville USA recorded their chart-breaking songs. Knowing you’re breathing the same air as Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the Jackson 5 — just to name a few — is an affecting experience. There’s a palpable energy, when you realize all these people stood here and sang here. The same is true about the Scarab Club beams, where the signatures serve as incontrovertible proof of some of art history’s legends (and some of its lost stories).

“A lot of people refer to the beams of the Scarab Club as our guest book,” said Wilkinson. “And it is that kind of intimate connection between people — or in our case between the people of an institution and the individual. That’s just a lovely thing, because you feel people’s presence when you look at those beams. There’s somebody like, for example, Rockwell Kent, who was kind of a reclusive artist from the East Coast. But he was in Detroit, and he was in that room. That’s pretty amazing.”

From OGs to new signees, the Scarab Club has a wintry mix of art folks. Dell Pryor (top left) is a longtime influential gallerist. Beaver Edwards (middle right) was a Detroit sculptor, now you know.
Automotive designer Bill Porter’s signature, hanging out with English travel writer and radio and television personality Carveth Wells.
Pablo S. Davis made a point of signing directly on top of Diego Rivera’s 1932 signature, proving that nothing is as impenetrable as an artist’s notion of self-importance.

Editor’s Note, 4/5/2023, 5:49pm EDT: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of artist Pablo S. Davis, née Paul Meier Kleinbord. This has been corrected.

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 —...

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