Put Your Money Where Your Art Is

Patrons walking into Paramount Bank in Ferndale are more likely to spend time gazing at art than deposit slips. Beyond the brochures for free checking accounts and money market rates, customers find themselves surrounded by elaborate sculptures and modern-art paintings.

The Ferndale branch –Paramount’s fourth-- breaks away from the normal conservative bank mold by sharing its space with Community Arts @ Paramount, an art gallery that displays locally produced work and collections from area residents. Actually, sharing isn’t quite the right word. It’s more like an eclectic art gallery that happens to let a few bank employees work in the back.

In the rear of the storefront you’ll find cashier counters and bank rep cubicles but nearly a third of Paramount Bank's space --including the valuable curbside entrance fronting Woodward Ave—is dedicated to art.

"It doesn’t have to be art about the banking industry," says John McQuiggin, manager of the branch. "It has to be about the art."

Paramount highlights a trend taking root in Metro Detroit: businesses that not only support local art, but make it a part of their establishment. From small, magically appearing, fairy doors in Ann Arbor to a city-centric bar in a rapidly gentrifying downtown Detroit, businesses across Southeast Michigan are using artistic expression to garner attention, reach out to the local community and set themselves apart from the one-size-fits-all national chains.

This partnership between artists and business-owners helps reflect and define their community’s identity, creating a greater sense of place.

"This is both cause and effect," says Mike Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Art first, money second

Farmington Hills-based Paramount Bank may be the only financial institution in Michigan to employ a curator for its Ferndale branch/art gallery. Narine Kchikian, a College of Creative Studies professor, selects the art and helps create the shows for the loft-like space. She has seen similar combinations in Europe but believes the Paramount Bank branch is unique to Metro Detroit.

"I think it’s perfect because it’s so accessible to the people," Kchikian says. "When you see artwork when you’re not looking for it or when you don’t expect it, you’re still impacted by it in many ways and it enhances your life."

The venture was the brainchild of officials from the bank, the city and local residents. Paramount Bank loved the building’s location and wanted to use it, but knew its 4,000 square feet of space was more than the bank branch needed. A committee came up with the idea of using 1,400 square feet for Community Arts @ Paramount gallery. So Paramount Bank set about renovating the existing storefront to maintain the integrity of cityscape and fit in with the Ferndale mindset. The result is a space that appeals to the community and has been good for business.

"It’s a very up-and-coming artistic community," McQuiggin says. "There are a lot of art galleries quaint shops and a nice downtown."

Reflecting and shaping the environment

Jerry Belanger always wanted a Detroit bar for Detroiters and by Detroiters. When he saw the ramshackle abandoned building at the corner of Park Avenue and Elizabeth Street in downtown Detroit he knew he had found his place.

Though it seems like there would be an abundance of such bars in the heart of a city as distinctive as Detroit, Belanger and his friends didn’t see it that way. They saw a central business district that gentrifies a little more each day, catering to the suburbanites who come to patronize the sports stadiums, casinos and major events. Belanger wanted something that can’t be found in Novi or Taylor, something authentic and local.

The Park Bar and Cliff Bells --two bars in Belanger’s two-story Albert Khan building-- hit that nail on the head. Cliff Bells, a popular jazz bar and former speakeasy, was restored to its 1930s Art Deco glory and caters to the city’s historic preservation community. The adjacent Park Bar has a minimalist, loft-like appearance, showing off the structure’s bones with exposed concrete columns, brick walls and air ducts. It’s a meticulously restored local hangout that dedicates one night a week to Detroit-area musicians and boasts a wide array of Motor-City brews.

Belanger hired a crew of about a dozen craftsmen and tradesmen who lived within the city to give his bars a decidedly Detroit flavor. He had the overall vision of what he wanted, but let his crew take care of the details, providing each space with its distinct character. Belanger describes the bars as an artistic expression on par with sculpture. To him it is the key factor to attracting clientele; city residents looking for a homey watering hole and suburbanites looking for an authentic Detroit place.

"This really has Detroit written all over it because it was borne out of the concepts and creativity of the artisans who worked on it," Belanger says.

That type of artistic statement can serve to make local businesses standout in a rapidly globalizing world where McDonalds and USA Today are more familiar than the mom-and-pop businesses of yesteryear. But it also helps a business conform to and be accepted by its community, said Professor Bernacchi.

"It’s a way of symbolizing your beliefs and the culture it’s a part of," Bernacchi says. "Hopefully, it will attract more of the same. … I think that’s what every business wants. They want to be accepted into the community."

Fairies adding flavor

Ann Arbor is known as a hot bed for artistic and creative expression. It’s obvious from the numerous art galleries that line its downtown to the city’s annual Art Fair, the largest in the state. But that artistic expression also appears in the smaller, yet just as important, details, such as copies of famous pieces of art painted on fire hydrants or small fairy doors appearing at the entrances of local businesses.

The dollhouse-sized doorways and windows have been subtly incorporated into cafes, retail stores even a dentist's office, capturing the imagination of children and attracting the coins of delighted adults. Maps for the doors are found in each of the sponsoring establishments.

The fairy door phenomenon has spread through a dozen businesses and institutions in downtown Ann Arbor and has given the college town national exposure that reaches beyond its football stadium walls. That’s quite an achievement for a few square inches of ornate Victorian design.

One of the better-known doors can be found at Peaceable Kingdom, a gift store on South Main Street, where the door actually leads to a little fairy room beneath the storefront’s Main Street window bays. A flick of the light switch reveals a Borrowers-sized home filled with tiny furnishings and stacks of donated change. Could this be fairy central?

Carol Lopez, owner of the eclectic store for 35 years, has watched traffic to her shop steadily increase since the fairy door first appeared a couple of years ago. Several news stories have been written on it, including one by The Washington Post. That has brought more and more visitors, ranging from out-of-state tourists to kids dragging their grandparents.

"Lots of people get on their hands and knees, peak into the windows and say thank you," Lopez said.

Jonathan B. Wright, the man behind the doors, says he only "investigates the fairies’ appearances" but sees them more as a fun architectural addition to the buildings than as true art. But he concedes that there is definitely some creative expression. To Wright it reflects Ann Arbor’s artistic reputation and spirit.

"I think it enhances Ann Arbor’s reputation as a unique place, as a fun and imaginative place," Wright says. "This is my hometown so I’m glad to see it."

Want to visit the places mentioned in this article?

The Paramount Bank is located at
22635 Woodward Ave.
Ferndale MI 48220
Phone: 248 -414-6500

The Park Bar and Cliff Bells are located at: 
2030 Park
Detroit, MI 48226
Phone: (313) 961-2543

Ann Arbor’s Fairy Doors can be found at:

1.   SweetWaters Café, 123 West Washington, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
2.   Peaceable Kingdom, 210 South Main St, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
3.   Selo/Shevel Gallery, 301 South Main St, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
4.   Red Shoes, 332 South Ashley, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
5.   Ann Arbor Framing Co., 838 South Main St, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
6.   Jefferson Market, 609 West Jefferson, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
7.   The Ark, 316 South Main St, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
8.   Ann Arbor District Library, 343 South Fifth Ave, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
9.   Nicola's Books, Westgate Shopping Center, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
10.  Kay Wilson DDS, Pediatric Dentristry, 1303 Packard Rd, Ann Arbor, MI 48103

Jon Zemke is a Detroit-based freelance writer who also contributes to Model D.


Fairy doors attract shoppers in downtown Ann Arbor

Commissioned mural painting from The Paramount Bank's web site (detail)

Jerry Belanger sits atop The Park Bar (photo by Dave Krieger)

Catherine Thursby of Red Shoes Home Goods and her fairy door

"Jane" the dog keeps watch for fairies at Peacable Kingdom

Photographs by
Myra Klarman Photography (except where noted) - All Rights Reserved
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