Celebrating Buckham Gallery's 40th anniversary with Executive Director, Michele Leclaire

FLINT, Michigan — As potentially Michigan’s oldest artist co-op gallery, Buckham Gallery was founded in 1983 by a group of Flint artists “to make accessible contemporary arts in all media for the benefit of the public, as well as to enrich and enhance local cultural life by presenting works and concepts that are not being provided by other organizations in the area.” 

As its Executive Director for the last three and a half years, Michele Leclaire has driven Flint’s iconic Buckham Gallery to new heights. Under Leclaire’s tenure, the nonprofit organization has re-engaged the city’s literary artists through its Writer In Residence program, buckled down to adhere to the gallery’s bylaws, created Buckham’s In Conversation series, and brought numerous artists to Flint to present and talk about their work.

In 2023, Leclaire was nominated for the Claire M. White Award at the Art of Achievement Awards for her incredible work.

Having moved to Flint in 2015 with partner Donovan, he and Leclaire “were both painters looking for ways to engage with the community again. We were looking to meet other artists who share those ideas and talk.” Eventually, they became regulars at gallery shows and eventually became artist members. 

But Leclaire hasn’t done it alone. Together with Katie Cotton, Buckham’s Projects and Communications Coordinator, they form a dynamic duo.

Balancing the gallery’s day-to-day operations, from installing and breaking down exhibitions to talking with local and exhibition artists, is a testament to collaboration’s power. They ‘balance each other,’ often laughing and commenting on navigating the ‘crazy ideas’ they brainstorm, fostering a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose.

Flintside caught up with the pair inside Buckham Gallery to discuss everything surrounding the 40th anniversary.

Pictured on April 18, 2024, Michele Leclaire and Buckham Gallery's Projects and Communications Coordinator, Katie Cotton, are a powerful dynamic duo that "balance each other" around their "crazy ideas." (Anthony Summers | Flintside.com)
Flintside: This is Buckham’s 40th anniversary celebration. How does it feel to be part of this huge milestone?

Michele Leclaire: “I feel honored. It’s exciting because not a lot of small nonprofits, especially artist-run ones, make it. It being our 40th anniversary, we’ve had people come back through the years that we’ve seen their names in the archives. We’ve gotten to meet people that we haven’t met before. We try and get stories from them because we want to know what Buckham was like in the early and middle [parts]. Someone [shared] videos they recorded from 1990 when Buckham was doing crazy stuff. They built a brick wall across Saginaw Street and tore it down.” 

Flintside: How did you become Buckham’s Executive Director? 

M. Leclaire: “The [previous director] hired me to take over exhibitions. She asked, ‘What is your artistic vision for the gallery?’ and thank goodness my personality took over. It was finding ways to grow and push the [programs]. COVID happened, and I became the executive director. I was like, ‘I don’t know that I want to do that.’ [Then I asked], ‘Would I want to work for somebody else?’ I decided no, and I knew I was going to need some help right away. I [asked] Katie, and now she’s full-time, too.” 

Flintside: Which leads me to you, Katie. How did you get involved with Buckham?

Katie Cotton: “I always came to Art Walk when I was going to UofM–Flint. Through the pandemic, I lost my job, and Michele knew I had a lot of marketing experience through Flint Roller Derby. I’ve been at 40 hours for two years now. It kept building. It keeps growing, but it’s been wonderful and exciting.”

Flintside: What are some things you’ve learned while here and things you didn’t anticipate happening?

K. Cotton: “I don’t think I ever expected to work in a gallery. I feel every show offers something different and new, like installing toy cars hanging from the wall that are tied together. People don’t realize that our staff is just Michele and me. When you see a lot of stuff from Buckham, it’s most generally us. We install the shows ourselves. It’s interesting learning how the [art] talks to each other and the audience when they come in.”

M. Leclaire: “I never anticipated how often you have someone moved to tears. Something will strike a chord with them, and art can be powerful. It causes an emotional reaction, an experience shared between the piece and the person.”

"One of my big goals was to find ways to embrace the non-visual artists, welcome them back in, and get involved," explains Michele Leclaire inside Buckham Gallery on April 18, 2024. (Anthony Summers | Flintside.com)
Flintside: How does this work logistically with just you two?

M. Leclaire: “A show closes on a Saturday, and we come Sunday morning, and we’re taking it down and boxing it up. If anyone is local or dropping off, we try to get them to come get their stuff on that day, or we’re packing it up and getting ready for shipping. On Monday, one of our volunteers patches the holes and spot paints. Tuesday, we’re unpacking the new work and hanging it up, trying to shuffle things.”

K. Cotton: “To go back even further, we have an annual call for entry for our artists. They submit about a year and a half to two years in advance. We’re in contact with them and getting images beforehand. We do the postcards and artist statements with them and get their inventory. Then it arrives, and like Michele said, it all gets put up within a week.”

Flintside: With this being a big milestone, what details can you share with us?

M. Leclaire: “Our season runs October through September, so we started with our founder, Tom Nuzum. We were able to feature a few artists selected from the BIPOC Is The Theme! show. It’s important to find ways to support artists. So, this year, we have shipping stipends to help visual artists send work to Flint. May 10th is our actual 40th anniversary show. It marks 40 years from the very first exhibition in the old space. It’s going to be a big party.” 
"I always tell people that every day is different and unexpected here. You never know what stories you’re going to hear or what you’re going to get from the artwork,” explains Katie Cotton in a warm embrace with Michele Leclaire inside Buckham Gallery on April 18, 2024. (Anthony Summers | Flintside.com)
Flintside: When we think long-term, what legacy do you both want to leave with Buckham? 

M. Leclaire: “When it was founded, it was a group of artists. Organizations have ups and downs, and it had become mostly just a visual art exhibition space. So, coming in, one of my big goals was to find ways to embrace the non-visual artists, welcome them back in, and get involved. That started with the Writer In Residence, and it has grown to bring literary artists into the artist collaborators.”

K. Cotton: “Beyond the gallery and the incredible shows we have throughout, the little projects mean so much, like the Writer In Residence and [having] interns. It’s cool having these projects grow and be awesome. We have so many things beyond the gallery walls. Those are big pride points for me.”

Flintside: What have you taken away from this journey with Buckham so far?

M. Leclaire: “I feel more confident in what I’m able to accomplish. I’ve learned I could write grants, talk to people about art, and feel less like an imposter than I did [initially]. My big goals for myself in this position with Buckham have been relationship-building and building enthusiasm for the arts in Flint. I think everyone needs to come in and find a new way to look at something and feel because we want art to make you feel.”

K. Cotton: “Getting to embrace a side of me that I feel I was starting to lose. Getting to be creative and think through these things, because I was working retail before, is so different. I always tell people that every day is different and unexpected here. You never know what stories you’re going to hear or what you’re going to get from the artwork.”

Flintside: Finally, Michele, what are your hopes for the 50th anniversary?

M. Leclaire: “While continuing our efforts to build community and enrichment through art, our goal is to have a new space for additional programming in five to ten years – “a gallery of our own,” so to speak. This will enable us to grow programming to include not only more exhibitions but a project space where artists can create installations on location and speak with community visitors and hopefully artist studios for local artists and visiting artists. Nothing we do would be possible without the support of our Board of Directors, Arts Collective Members, community, and the financial support of individuals and organizations who donate to Buckham Fine Arts Project.”

To learn more about Buckham Gallery, visit: buckhamgallery.org 
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Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.