Like so many paradigm-shifting ideas, this one started simply: Two friends, a 24-hour diner slinging $6 breakfast plates and a passion for collecting art.

The friends were Henry Harper and Harold Braggs, the diner was Noni’s Sherwood Grille in Detroit and what began as inauspicously as two old pals talking shop has blossomed into the 5,000-member Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, which pre-pandemic was facilitating the sale of $20,000 worth of art per month.

“It’s completely revolutionized art here in Detroit,” Harper says. 

Now one of New Bedford’s native sons, Ron Fortier, hopes to bring not just the concept of the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club to the Whaling City, but its energy and incubation. 

“It’s absolutely phenomenal,” Fortier says. “I think we need something like that here in this city, too.”

Sign up and participate

The first meeting of the New Bedford Fine Arts Club will be held April 20. Artists can register to sell their work by filling out this form. Collectors and other attendees can register here. For more information about how the New Bedford Fine Arts Club will work, read this explainer guide. Artists who sell their work are asked to fill out this confidential sales form.

Fortier brought the idea to fellow local artist Kat Knutsen and New Bedford Light founding editor Barbara Roessner. The idea quickly became a reality when The Light agreed to launch the New Bedford Light Fine Art’s Club, initially through Zoom starting in late April, with plans to move in-person in the future. Local artists Shelley Cardoos and Fitzcarmel Lamarre soon signed on as co-hosts.

“We believe in the power of the arts to connect this richly diverse city,” Roessner says. “We are eager to provide a base, a hub, for all local artists to share their work. Detroit gives us a wonderful model.”

The next step was to understand the DFABC’s transformative power. To do so, one must start with its inauspicious origin. Harper, an antique dealer focusing on American furniture, was working as an art adviser for Braggs and his wife, Joanne, who in their retirement have acquired an expansive collection of African American art. 

After weekends spent browsing collections and exhibitions, Harper and Braggs would convene on Monday mornings to review what they saw. For two years, it was just the two of them filling a booth.

Word started to trickle out, and soon they were joined by a couple of other collectors who wanted to get in on a vibrant conversation about Detroit’s art scene. They began bringing in pieces to show. The energy grew contagious and attendance steadily rose until the 1,500-square-foot restaurant asked them to move the meeting to dinnertime so they would have room to serve their regular breakfast crowd. The breakfast club name stuck, however.

The club found itself to be such a hot ticket that folks would start lining up outside the restaurant three hours early to ensure a seat, making Noni’s look like Best Buy on Black Friday. 

“Harold said a long time ago, ‘This is going to be historic,’” Harper recalls. “I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ He told me, ‘You watch, Harper. It will happen.’”

The meetings were kept simple on purpose. Harper eschews Robert’s Rules of Order. Instead, there’s an emcee, and artists have four minutes each to share one or two pieces. As they describe their work, background and medium, artists also field questions, critiques and compliments from the attendees. Then, breaking out a cowbell and a gavel, items go up for auction, with the seller and buyer settling the financial transaction privately. If they come to an agreement, Harper bangs his gavel and bellows “Sold!”

“The problem with art is that it is often left to wealthy people,” Harper says. “What I did was to make it democratic. When we came up with the meeting format, the collectors were there and the artists followed.”

Harper was careful to tailor the club to the type of up-and-coming artists he felt needed an outlet to build their name recognition. 

“We structured it around emerging artists on the pathway to creating their art careers,” he says. “I want artists to get out and create a marketplace and a brand and promote their work.”

That’s precisely what piqued Fortier’s interest.

“The beauty of the Breakfast Club is they mentor and groom young artists,” he says. “New Bedford really needs this model. There are so many young people here and they’re all on their own. We don’t have a cohesive program.”

Fortier — who spent much of his career in advertising (he designed the Skip’s Marine logo decades ago) before spending the past dozen years as a painter, most recently focused on pieces representing the Tulsa race massacre — learned of the DFABC through his wife, Paula Batchelor, who hails from Detroit. 

Fortier had wanted to attend in person, but shortly after he learned about it, the pandemic began and the club shifted their meetings to Zoom, which allowed Fortier to begin joining regularly.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal to see how this has really sparked an interest,” he says. “This is basically where artists and collectors come together to buy. There’s great pride. You’re not just buying a piece of artwork, you’re helping a young person both financially and (with) their confidence.”

“I can’t wait to see this thing actually come to fruition,” Fortier says. “Let’s just see how it rolls. I think New Bedford is poised to really embrace its greatness.”

Email Brendan Kurie at brendan@newbedfordlight.org.

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