Sometimes life comes full circle. Such is the case with the Anton Art Center’s executive director Phil Gilchrist, who first entered the center’s doors as a young boy heading to an art class.
“I grew up a couple of blocks from the art center, so I visited often. It inspired a love of art and creativity in me. In one of the classes, I created a wall hanging which I still have and that hangs in my office at the center,” he said.
Gilchrist began working with the Anton Art Center as a grant coordinator in 2009 and assumed his current role as executive director in October 2015. A nearly life-long resident of Mount Clemens, Gilchrist is passionate about making a difference in his community through the arts. Via his work at the center, he focuses on creating opportunities for people throughout Macomb County to experience art and its benefits firsthand. He also works with center staff to support art education and the role that arts play in different cultures and communities.
“When I began my role as executive director, it really felt like life had come full circle, and I am using this role to help impact others within the community,” he said.
The Anton Art Center was first established in the historic Carnegie Library Building, with art classes being offered in the basement. The first exhibit at the center, loaned to the center by the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1970, was titled “Mother and Child.” Now in its 53rd year, the Anton Art Center – named after Gebran S. and Suzanne P. Anton, whose support allowed the center to expand via a $1.7 million renovation and addition in 2007 – has become the largest and longest-standing visual arts and exhibiting organization in Macomb County.
The center has two primary galleries for exhibiting artists, with 20 to 24 rotating exhibits each year. In addition, classes are offered for all ages and artistic mediums, with ceramics being especially popular.
“We often have a waiting list for some classes. I think the movie ‘Ghost’ romanticized ceramics. But also it is an artistic medium that is popular because it is tangible. You take a pile of dirt, essentially, and create something beautiful from it,” he said. “It is not as easy as it looks and there is a mysterious aspect to how to become good at it.”
Instructors at the center are local artists sharing their craft. Art teachers offer programs in ceramics; loom weaving; acrylic; oil and watercolor painting; wire-wrapping jewelry; mosaics; mixed media; acrylic flow; and resin pouring. The classes and workshops are for students of all experience levels and ages so that they may get creative in a safe and welcoming space, Gilchrist said.
In all, Gilchrist said the center's programs bring art experiences to thousands of people each year and help over 150 local artists annually earn income from their work at exhibits and events. In addition, bringing art outward to the community is a center priority. This is done through classes and summer art programs that provide access to the arts to students, minorities, senior citizens, and the impoverished.
“Over the years our programming has expanded to include public art projects, musical performances, offsite engagements, and greater outreach to partner organizations in the area to increase arts access, and the advocacy of art and artists across the region,” Gilchrist said. These projects include murals in downtown Mount Clemens, art enrichment in Mount Clemens Schools, and participation in a variety of public festivals.
The Anton Art Center also launched the IDEA Council, an advisory body to the center’s board and staff. The purpose of the council is to “explore areas for improvement and learn specifically from people of color how we can be more inclusive, support diversity in our community, work toward equity in our programs and operations, and increase access to the arts for all.”
“We need to ask ourselves ‘how do we become more attuned to the needs of our entire community?’ ” Gilchrist said.
This fall, the IDEA Council’s first project – a partnership of artist Jay Dickerson and poet Jessica Care Moore – was installed on the exterior of the Anton Art Center facility. Its design serves as a platform to discuss and highlight the underrepresentation of Black artists and communities in the arts, Gilchrist said.
The nonprofit center’s nearly half-million dollar budget is funded through class tuition, donors, grants, and fundraising events like the recent Art Party in September.
Fulfilling the center's mission is key to Gilchrist’s mindset, which focuses on bringing to others the same inspiration he found as a child taking classes at Anton.
“We have a part to play outside of our walls and within our communities to engage the public in conversations about art, and to make sure access to art and the opportunities for expression are available to all.”