Downtown Jewel


Photos by Robert Chase

Historic Carr Center offers array of activities for those of all interests

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News
The law community in downtown Detroit has a jewel in its midst — the historic Carr Center, at 311 East Grand River, where legal eagles and their families can enjoy art exhibits, music, dance and theater performances, arts classes in creative writing, dance, theater, photography, jazz, visual arts, and more. The center has exhibition space, art studios, performing arts rehearsal and performance studios, and facilities for wedding ceremonies, receptions, and community gatherings.
The center is located in the 119-year-old Harmonie Club building, an edifice with three decades of seniority over its near neighbors: the Opera House, Detroit Athletic Club, Gem Theater and Music Hall. The four-story, hip-roofed, Beaux Arts style building, founded by 19th century German immigrants and a Michigan State Historic Site that is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is close to downtown law firms, two law schools, and the 36th District Court, the busiest court in the state.

“The building was built by the Harmonie Musical Society and it’s a place where the arts and the community could come together,” says Oliver Ragsdale Jr., president and artistic director. “Now, more than 100 years later, the Carr Center is doing the exact same thing in the same building with a 21st century twist!”

 The development of the center is under the auspices of its parent organization, the Arts League of Michigan (ALM), established in 1991 as a cooperative supporting black arts groups: the Brazeal Dennard Chorale, Detroit Metropolitan Orchestra, Detroit Jazz Orchestra, Broadside Press and an African themed dance company, and sponsored by Highland Park Community College with foundation support.

Named in honor of Virgil H. Carr, past president and CEO of the local United Way Community Services and past chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Arts League of Michigan, the center was established in 2009 by the ALM with the aim of becoming the country’s premiere focus for African and African American cultural arts programs and activities. The Carr Center’s focus is evolving today into a more global view with an emphasis on the arts and people of the whole community — and with the launch of a new collaboration with Detroit Public TV this summer, “Detroit Performs LIVE from the Carr Center” provides a global transmission platform for performances and classes by Detroit artists to audiences throughout the world.

The master plan, developed in collaboration with faculty, Carr Center Architectural Fellows from the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and Anya Sirota + Akoaki, includes $6 million in game-changing renovations — including the creation of a cultural landscape that connects the grand third floor performance space with the unique outdoor environment of the center’s front yard, Paradise Valley/Harmonie Park — and dynamic programs that will broaden the audience, artists, donor base and support network to include artists and audiences from all communities, while maintaining a core focus on African-American cultural traditions.

Based on the research conducted by its U-M collaborators, the Carr Center will be the first cultural center of its kind in the United States, Ragsdale notes. 

“We’ve received the blessing from our board of the design concepts and created a model,” he says. “Now the work is telling our story and garnering the attention and support of donors who will to help us realize this most innovative of cultural center models and be a part of the revitalization of downtown Detroit, while helping ensure ‘we won’t be another Soho,’ where artists lose their place in the neighborhood to higher rents. Over the next several months we’ll be working to make the vision a reality.”

Despite launching with a leap of faith during the recession, the Carr Center is now providing an economic boost to the area. 

“We got the keys on June 1, 2009, right in the midst of economic hell,” Ragsdale says. “When we moved into the neighborhood, occupancy was 30 percent — today there are waiting lists everywhere downtown. The events and activities within the Carr Center and those we’ve presented in the park have played a catalytic role in revitalizing our neighborhood.”

A Pittsburgh native, Ragsdale was hired by Highland Park Community College in the ‘90s to assist with the ALM project of presenting programs around the metro area. A classically trained musician, and a percussionist since fourth grade, he holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where the master’s program led him into the world of arts management. Still a professional percussionist for orchestras, churches and shows, he has managed two symphony orchestras and a dance company, was an associate producer in a Broadway show, and managed the Michigan 4-H youth arts program.

Upcoming exhibitions include Third Thursday Gallery Crawls; Midwest Ethnic Convention for Comics and Art (MECCA) on September 20; Design Festival Crawl on September 26; and Artists to Artists conversations on September 18, October 16, and November 20.

The Carr Center will begin its fall season on October 5 with the Michigan Philharmonic and host a Salsa Party with Band on October 23; “Touring in the Shadow of Motown” on October 24; Jazz percussionist Winnard Harper on November 14 and 15 and Cut Time Simfonica on November 22. Performances to brighten up the onset of winter include the Holidays in Black and White on December 12; Detroit Hoofers Holiday Show on December 13; Kisma Jordan Celebrates the Holidays in Song on December 14; and Spartan Youth Jazz Spectacular on December 17.

There are many ways to enjoy the Carr Center, including a MultiPass that provides a unique way for audience members to experience the wide range of monthly activities. “With a pass, similar to NetFlix, a holder can attend as many public activities at the center as they choose for one low price,” Ragsdale explains. “It’s not a subscription to a jazz series or an exhibition program, but a subscription to the building — the first of its kind.”
A donor can support the organization with a basic membership which includes discounted single admission to selected events and class enrollment, the quarterly Carr Center e-letter, invitations to Members Only events, and a discount on art purchases. Individual memberships range from $50 to $99, and $100 to $249 for families; other levels include contributing, sustaining, gold, founder and corporate.

The Carr Center fall hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays/Fridays; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays/Thursdays; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. The center is closed to the public on Monday. Validated parking at a discount rate is available at the nearby Z Deck parking garage at Grand River and Broadway.

For more information, visit or call (313) 965-8430.