LA Times: Detroit Evolving Into A Haven For Artists

A pianist tickles the ivories at Cafe D'Mongos, a speak-easy that has reopened… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

LA Times
Andrew Bender, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Detroit—
"Where you headed?" asked the cheerful driver of the rental-car shuttle at the Detroit airport.

"Detroit!" I answered, equally cheerfully.

"Southfield, Birmingham or Rochester?" he asked, referring to well-to-do northern suburbs.

PHOTOS: Detroit's artistic side

"No, Detroit," I responded.

Silence, then a shrug as if to say, "Suit yourself."

Many Americans — even many Michiganders — see Detroit as a place to be feared: impoverished, decimated and down-and-out depressing. Sure enough, my drive into the city center took me past what a friend calls "desolation porn": eerie shells of onetime factories, warehouses, shops and office buildings, and block after block of overgrown lots that used to be comfortable working-class neighborhoods. During my visit, the local newspaper reported coyote sightings in the city.

Yet Detroit is evolving, not unlike late 1990s downtown Los Angeles. Cheap rents and an urban pioneering spirit are attracting young artists, and new restaurants, nightspots and even urban farms are serving this growing community and its hipster fans. It's still the early days, but change is palpable, even to the casual visitor.

"I tell my colleagues, 'Have your portfolio ready! There's a big spotlight on Detroit!' " said Gilda Snowden, an ebullient painter and professor of fine arts at the city's College for Creative Studies (one of the region's arts incubators, along with Wayne State University and the suburban Cranbrook Academy of Art). She pays $800 a month for a 2,500-square-foot studio with a kitchen and Jacuzzi.

There's plenty of inspiration in the designated Cultural Corridor, in the Midtown neighborhood just north of downtown Detroit. I stayed at the Inn on Ferry Street, a bed-and-breakfast in a cluster of Victorian homes off Woodward Avenue. It's just a couple of blocks to the Detroit Institute of Arts, by my reckoning America's most overlooked major museum: 658,000 square feet (more than 11/2 football fields) founded in 1885 and reopened in 2010 after a five-year renovation. I could have spent an hour ogling Mexican painterDiego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" frescoes (1932-33), but I was glad I made time for the collections of contemporary and African American art, and masterworks such as Pieter Brueghel's "The Wedding Dance" (circa 1566).

Within a few blocks' walk, the College for Creative Studies' student galleries exhibit skillful works of illustration, product and transportation design, photography and more. The campus sculpture park boasts pieces by Richard Serra,Alexander Calder and other 20th century luminaries. The nearby Scarab Club was founded in 1907, dedicated to artistic pursuits. Rivera, Marcel Duchamp and Norman Rockwellvisited its Renaissance Revival building (1928); on my visit, the exhibition "Family Ties" featured intergenerational works by Detroit artist families.

The problem for these artists, said Simone DeSouza, is that "Michigan artists don't sell to Michiganders." Local collectors might visit New York or Los Angeles to buy work made in Detroit. Aiming to change that, DeSouza opened Re:View Contemporary Gallery in 2008 in a loft-style building that could be at home on either coast.

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