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Jun 13, 2022

From homeschool to hometown connector

Aaron Timlin family photo for Excelerate America interview

Aaron Timlin is the owner of detroit contemporary art gallery as well as the President and CEO of the Chalfonte Foundation. Aaron grew up in rural northern Michigan where he and his siblings were homeschooled. Then as an adult, he found mentorship in Fr. James Myer, a Detroit-based priest and activist. These experiences taught him a lot about self-determination and serving others, two skills he still employs and finds ever-more important today. Throughout his career he’s made specific business choices to positively impact Detroit’s residents, and is constantly seeking out innovative ways to use his businesses to bring neighborhoods together. 

Here’s how Aaron Timlin is working to connect his community:

On believing you can affect change
When I bought [the detroit contemporary building] in 1994 I didn’t know what I was doing. But if you believe you can do something you can. It was a rough neighborhood, but I believed in it. Now I’m in a unique position where I have to turn away developers making bigger and bigger offers. It’s a great opportunity to do stuff in the middle of all the change that is happening now and not allow us to be pushed out.

On a business that does more
[detroit contemporary] is not just a place for art; it’s a hub for everyone in the neighborhood and beyond to come together. We have DJs that play music on the front lawn, are creating an internet broadcasting space on the second floor, and building out a Montessori preschool on the third floor. The Chalfonte Foundation’s strategic plan includes the gallery, a youth foundation, and more. We’re also working on producing a reality show getting artists to fix up homes in Detroit’s Northwest Goldberg neighborhood.

On his entrepreneurial superpower
It definitely would be my imagination. If we could think back to our childhood, we all would know what our superpower is. We lose it over time, through schooling and society as a whole.

⁠⁠You have to trust yourself. In your powers and your feelings, and our imagination is part of following that. We all need to be selfish in that way and we’ll pull each other up to who we need to be.

On being open to criticism
It’s okay to be different. JFK brought in advisors that he knew would disagree with him. I would call my dad up with ideas and he would give me constructive criticism about them. 

⁠If we aren’t open to feedback we can get wishy-washy. Then you’re a sponge instead of a stone— and you can’t build a house with a sponge!

On how he keeps his momentum going
Other people motivate me. I love people and ideas. It goes back to the belief that new ideas are a good thing, so you should just do it. I can get stressed and stay awake, so meditation and eating healthy is important to me.

⁠My son is a big motivation for me too, and being able to watch him and the other kids he’s in preschool with. Kids are amazing if you allow them to be who they are.

On surfing and entrepreneurship
A good thing to remember about business is that you have to learn when a wave is coming. It requires paying attention, and then you have to ride the wave. Really good surfers know when the right wave is on its way. It’s about paying attention and listening to your intuition.

On obstacles
If I have an obstacle, I acknowledge it and trust that the answer will come. If I work too hard for something, it’s not right. Sometimes I work really hard to do something and it fails. Then I say, “Okay, now I have to rebirth something out of this failing.”

⁠⁠What are the most important things? Love, faith, and hope. Fall forward and trust that it will be okay.

On finding opportunity within a huge challenge 
A big thing I think is that human beings all have the ability to be adaptable. We’re all creatures of habit, but we all can adapt to bad situations as well as good situations. It’s just a matter of trying to find the good out of a bad situation.

⁠⁠I recently had one artist bail on me at the last minute and said that he didn’t have a show. The gallery was ready, promotion was out, so I had to think about it. What can I do that’s positive out of this? So I put out a call for artists, sharing that anyone from the Detroit area could bring in three pieces of work, install it themselves, and it would remain on view for the balance of the month. Forty-nine artists responded! It was such a great cross-section of artists, and so much has come out of those new relationships. 


Leslie Youngblood

Motivated by daring doers. Lover of fashion and dogs.