Jane Schulak is known internationally as an outstanding designer. But in Detroit, her growing reputation is not merely for fostering exceptional art — although she certainly does that. Even more so, it’s for fostering collaborative efforts to bring both local and international artists and innovators together.
You might call her movement of ideas and inspiration a cultural crusade. And her vehicle for it is Culture Lab Detroit — a non-profit organization powered by her own steam, with help from friends in the city, suburbs, and around the world.
She founded Culture Lab five years ago, in collaboration with the College for Creative Studies and the Detroit Creative Corridor Center. At its best, she says, it’s invisible — quietly, but stridently encouraging and supporting the work of others.
“We are a platform of intense cooperation,” Schulak says from her office space at WeWork, a co-working space in downtown Detroit. “Culture Lab is not so much about what I am doing. It’s about what everybody else is doing. We hope that whatever conversation is happening or whatever experiments are taking place or whatever artwork we’re making with somebody, it becomes its own thing.”
But it is her passion, her hands-on involvement and admiration for creativity that helps attract people from all over the world to Detroit. She personally takes invited visitors — artists, designers, social activists — on city tours, introduces them to Detroiters, and gets them as excited about Detroit and its future as she is.
“I’m completely committed to the work I do and somehow that translates,” Schulak says. “Or, I’m just really tenacious.”
The centerpiece of Culture Lab is a multi-day annual program that stirs conversation around a single theme or topic. It includes panel discussions, performances, art projects and more.
This fall’s program is “Post-Truth,” an exploration of how objective facts are taking a backseat to emotions and beliefs in shaping public opinion. Organizers say they’ll also look at how art helps people navigate what’s real or not.
Schulak points out, however, that neither she nor Culture Lab is politically motivated. She simply seeks timely topics that will spur conversation, collaboration, and creativity.
“I’m looking for some really interesting collaborations to come out of this,” Schulak says of this year’s panel discussion and programming, scheduled for October 5-6.
Past topics have included walls, green spaces, and art intervention.
Various creations have been birthed through Culture Lab:
- A two-week pop-up store, Culture Lab Design, with products that came from pairing local and international artists. Proceeds benefited local projects and artists.
- Hanging planters made of twisted discarded tires using macramé knotting techniques. The products were made in collaboration with the Cass Community Social Services.
- A three-month run of an art installation created by noted artist Gary Simmons. He wallpapered a Bedrock-owned building with colorful flypostings that denoted musical styles. It was presented in partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), with support from Bedrock.
- A panel on urban farming that featured national leaders in the field, Will Allen and Patrick Blanc, along with — via Skype — chef and food activist, Alice Waters, founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project.
Among others Schulak has brought to Detroit are David Adjaye, the lead designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., performance artist Migguel Anggelo, and furniture and interior designers, Fernando and Humberto Campana.
Detroit Institute of Arts President Salvador Salort-Pons describes Jane Schulak as an extremely passionate city and arts activist.
“She has great intuition about what’s important and relevant for this community,’’ Salort-Pons says. “She’s passionate about what she does, about bringing in artists and sharing ideas with this community.”
Restaurateur and developer Phil Cooley praises Schulak for not only bringing world-class talent to Detroit, but making sure they become engaged and involved with the local community.
“She’s kind of like a cultural ambassador,” Cooley says. “And she’s kind of like a mom because she has such a big heart. I love how she’s really fulfilled by making these connections and encouraging great art.”
College for Creative Studies professor Michael Stone-Richards says Schulak gets the importance of taking Detroit’s creativity to a world stage and bringing that world stage to Detroit.
“Detroit is a source of creativity,” Stone-Richards says. “That creativity is enhanced with relationships with national and international-caliber artists. She sincerely wants to have an impact on the betterment of Detroit.”
Her longtime friend and arts advocate, Marsha Miro agrees.
“It’s not just altruistic,” Miro says. “She is deeply, emotionally involved in the city and wants to be a part of helping it regenerate. And she doesn’t brag about what she does, she just does it.”
Schulak was born in Detroit, lives in Birmingham, and travels regularly for artistic work she does in Paris. She says she became increasingly interested in Detroit about six years ago when close friends began to encourage her to spend time in the city, getting to know its neighborhoods and people. She became increasingly drawn to it and committed to doing whatever she could to work with Detroiters.
“There’s just this positive attitude that’s all over this city,” Schulak says. “It’s like living art work. I just want to be a part of it and bring something to it, not just watch, but actually be a part of the process.”
That positive, determined energy she feels in Detroit radiates from Schulak herself.
Schulak’s not sure where that spark comes from. She thinks back over her life and recalls a skiing accident at age 16. She was hospitalized for weeks and unable to walk for two years. She became a voracious reader — still is — because reading was all she could do.
Certainty that she would recover carried her through.
“I knew at some point I’d be fine,” Schulak recalls. “I just felt it deep down inside. I felt I could do it. Maybe I take some of that same energy to Detroit. You have to be able to absorb some pretty serious bumps along the way. But I’ve never stopped. I’ll never stop until Culture Lab fulfills its mission.”
That mission, she says, is to have collaborations on the ground that add to and enhance what’s already going on in Detroit.
“The platform hopefully gives people the tools to open conversation, to create an atmosphere for collaboration and can, hopefully, further all the good that’s happening,” Schulak says. “But then continue to take it up. To respectfully raise the bar higher and higher and higher.”
Schulak keeps up other interests in the arts as well. She’s an active board member of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Paris. A gracious and beloved hostess, she designed a luncheon for 40 guests from around the world. Decorations were made entirely of paper, a tribute to the museum’s ancient and vast collection. Years later, people still hail the luncheon as the height of elegance.
She’s also writing a book with David Stark — another acclaimed designer she has brought to Detroit — that she hopes will be out next year.
When Schulak’s not working on Culture Lab or creating her own art, the proud grandma of three enjoys working in her spacious organic garden, exercising — she’s a runner — and traveling around the world.
“I’ve been very loved in my life,” Schulak says. “I live well in my skin. Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw.”
After each annual Culture Lab event, Schulak devotes time to self-care, recharging for the challenges ahead.
“I go hiking. I eat super healthy and I just get quiet,” Schulak says. “The best thing I come away with is myself, which is great.”
The discussion “Alternative Facts” will take place Thursday, October 5, at the Jam Handy (2900 E Grand Blvd, Detroit). There will be a reception at 6:30pm, and the dialogue will start at 7pm. The discussion “The Lie That Tells the Truth” will take place Friday, October 6 at Woods Cathedral (1945 Webb Street). There will be a 6:30pm reception, and the dialogue will start at 7pm.
Please visit www.culturelabdetroit.org for more information.