Detroit a Hotbed of Cool Art? AH, YES!

Siri Agrell
The Globe and Mail

The corner of Brush Street and General Motors Boulevard is not the place you expect to see something beautiful. A row of abandoned houses droop in the snow, their windows broken and doors boarded up. Empty lots are overgrown with weeds and a fleet of police cars lines a fenced-in lot, ready for action in a neighbourhood where crime is the main inhabitant. There are no snowy footprints on the sidewalk, and a dingy gas station goes unvisited. But on the side of a nine-storey warehouse a huge mural cuts through the palpable gloom, more than 10,000 square feet of sky blue streaming drips of red, purple, orange and yellow down the building's western wall.

The Illuminated Mural was painted last August by artist Katie Craig, part of a citywide initiative that allowed six Detroit communities to commission large-scale works of art for their neighbourhoods.

Years of decay and decline have turned Detroit's downtown core into a ghost town, miles of crumbling houses, empty lots and boarded-up businesses creating an apocalyptic zone of nothingness between the central business district and the still-vibrant suburbs.

But a community of artists has moved into the void, drawn by the promise of cheap real estate and free rein.

Some of their projects are done in partnership with local businesses and cultural institutions, desperate to put a more attractive face on their blighted city, but others have adopted a guerrilla approach, taking over decrepit spaces only an artist could love. Together, the work is redefining a city best known for its dying automotive industry and Eminem's 8 Mile, and suggests that it may just be possible for a city to save itself with art.

The most visible of Detroit's artistic makeovers have utilized the city's most abundant found material: abandoned buildings.

Recently, two New York transplants covered a deserted house with water, transforming it into a glittering monument to decay called The Ice House. The work follows in the footsteps of Object Orange, in which a group of anonymous art students painted abandoned properties in bright orange paint, highlighting empty properties that had been left to rot, and expediting the demolition of many buildings by city authorities.

Another nameless crew draped blue flags from the windows of an empty building that was once Michigan Central Station. And when Olayame Dabls bought an empty building next to his store, the African Bead Museum, he responded to a city order to board it up by covering the exterior with a mosaic of mirrored glass, iron and wood.

“There's guerrilla art going on here. It's quite amazing,” said Richard Rogers, president of the College for Creative Studies, a college of art and design. “Artists are moving in from other parts of the world to experience this energy that seems to be developing.”

He moved from New York City 10 years ago, much to the surprise of his friends. People think of Detroit as decayed, destroyed, post-apocalyptic, he said, and largely beyond repair. “Artists don't really look at things that way,” he said. “Artists go into places that other people aren't interested in and transform them.”

The artistic vision for Detroit can be traced back to Heidelberg Street, where Tyree Guyton began an installation nearly 25 years ago transforming his childhood neighbourhood into a walkable museum.

His work exists in the midst of a huge residential wasteland, where more than 90 per cent of homes are abandoned. He has turned the street into some sort of Disney park gone wrong, with trees hung with shopping carts and a rowboat stacked with rotting stuffed toys. One home is covered in brightly coloured numbers, to help local children learn to count, and a residence known as the Dotty Wotty House is covered in bright circles of colour.

In the 1990s, the city twice attempted to demolish the work, but Mr. Guyton has since registered the Heidelberg Project as a non-profit, one that now employs three full-time and two part-time staff. They have 30 volunteers, a swarm of interns and a lead designer on loan from the University of Michigan. What once was seen as an eyesore is now viewed as a template for revival. Executive director Jenenne Whitfield, Mr. Guyton's wife, says the project draws 250,000 visitors a year, making it Detroit's third-largest tourist destination. Last summer, a group of European tourists held a picnic in the middle of the street.

But the aim is not just to become an outdoor gallery. Ms. Whitfield says they want to rebuild the community around the art. Already, two artists have moved onto the street, and Ms. Whitfield hopes that more will follow, and signs of life will spread outward from the project. “As far as I'm concerned, Detroit is a blank canvas,” she said. “We're infusing energy into a community that has lost hope.”

Artist Mitch Cope did not think of his hometown as a worthy palette when he was growing up, but during a brief western sojourn for graduate school, he could think only of projects that would improve Detroit.

In 2005, he and his wife, Gina Reichert, bought a home in the city for less than $2,000 and transformed the ramshackle property into a brightly coloured artist studio that is completely off the grid, powered by solar panels. The couple now own three houses and two additional lots, and have been recruiting artists from Germany, Chicago and San Francisco with the promise of homes as cheap as $100 and the ability to work outside the system.

“They come here because they see those cities as being unmovable,” he said of his friends. “You have to have a normal job in order to survive and you can't do anything a little more creative or offline.”

Although Mr. Cope and his wife go about most of their work unbothered by bureaucracy, they have been given the tacit support of a city with nothing to lose. One official from the mayor's office said he could not provide funding, but would take care of any local crime. Mr. Cope sent the man a list of nearby drug houses, which were raided by police the very next day.

Having hit rock bottom, Detroit is game to try something new, and there is a willingness to partner with artists that does not exist in other cities.

For years, the maze of buildings that make up the Russell Industrial Center sat empty, more than a million square feet of industrial space that once housed an auto-body supplier owned by Henry and Leona Helmsley. In the early 2000s, a new owner tried to find a manufacturer to move in, before realizing he could fill the space by renting individual studios to local artists. The centre is now home to photographers and musicians, film studios and architects, glassblowers and graphic designers.

Individual artists are not the only ones who see creativity as a means to improve Detroit's lot. Large-scale cultural projects have also been drawing attention to the city, and helping to establish its reputation on the international art scene.

The Detroit Institute of Art was renovated in 2007, receiving an additional 77,000 square feet to house its billion-dollar collection. The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit opened in 2006 in a former car dealership, and the Kresge Foundation, a local philanthropic force, has begun issuing grants to 18 individual artists each year. A group called Detroit Renaissance has poured $50-million into the Creative Corridor project, which will fund artistic endeavours down Woodward Avenue, the city's downtown thoroughfare.

And last year, the College for Creative Studies took over General Motors' former engineering and design building, giving it a $145-million renovation to create a secondary campus, which houses undergraduate design programs as well as an art-focused charter school. In 2009, the college experienced its highest enrolment numbers to date.

“I think there's a very strong recognition of the role of art in moving the transformation along,” said Mr. Rogers.

He believes Detroit is following in the footsteps of places such as the SoHo neighbourhood of New York and Berlin, where artists moved into the void left by industry and created vibrant communities.

But, for the transformation to flourish, Mr. Rogers warns that artists cannot feel co-opted by the redevelopment movement. “To some extent, artists prefer to operate outside,” he said. “As soon as the mainstream recognizes them, it's over and they move on elsewhere.”

The city's pull shows no sign of waning. Mr. Cope says he receives daily correspondence from artists around the world inquiring about the city, and how they can buy a house for less than $1,000. He encourages them all to come, but he takes a skeptical view of those who arrive without a community-improvement angle. He views The Ice House and Object Orange as dilettante excursions into the city by artists with no real message or motive. And he hopes Detroit draws creative minds who want to improve the city's portfolio, as well as their own.

“Instead of doing something that results in getting a house torn down, why don't you do something that results in a house being fixed up?” he said. “It's an end not a beginning.”

And he is sure to warn his friends that Detroit is not an easy place to live. Yes, you can take over whole neighbourhoods as a canvas for your work, but finding a decent cup of coffee is not so easy. That said, he is glad Detroit is now being seen as an artistic draw.

“It's okay to be romantic about it,” he said. “For a long time, people just wanted to get away from here.”


Stephen Magsig said...

Siri, Thanks for the positive article on Detroit. We have one of the strongest art communities in the country. Please check out my blog Postcards from Detroit, I have posted almost 900 small oil paintings of Detroit over the last couple of years. Enjoy! Detroit Art Rocks!

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