|A group show at the Detroit Mercantile Company, called “Art Ethereal: Beauty and the Beast,” included the photographs of Sebastian Sullen.|
The night of June 20 was the Detroit native and photographer Sebastian Sullen’s first art exhibition, a group show called “Art Ethereal: Beauty and the Beast,” named for his contradictory subject: his city’s majestic architecture and scarred urban blight. Part of a monthly event called Third Thursday, the show packed the Detroit Mercantile Company, a retro general store and event space. There were carrot cake, beer from a nano-brewery and, in the storefront, “You Gotta Save Art!” stickers ($2.50) and T-shirts ($25) for sale in support of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
It was an apt message, even more so now. On July 18, Detroit, the cradle of the country’s automobile industry, filed for bankruptcy, the largest American city to ever do so. The tumble into insolvency has left officials pondering the likely fallout. For example, the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is owned by the city, faces the possibility of the sale of artwork from its impressive collection, which includes gems by van Gogh, Diego Rivera, Caravaggio, Breugel, Rembrandt, Rodin and Picasso, to help pay down the city’s crippling debts.
How Detroit’s bankruptcy will affect cultural life, and the 20 million tourists who visit the metro region a year, remains to be seen. But the city’s tourism bureau and others say that what the local government does has little bearing on what attracts people to Detroit. “Private investment in the city is at an all-time high, and while the bankruptcy process will be painful in the short run, officials know that the key to a successful city are the assets that draw visitors and residents,” said Renee Monforton, the communications director at the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, a privately funded organization that has had concerned calls from convention groups but as of Aug. 5 no cancellations.
Tourism officials are still promoting attractions like the arts institute, the North American International Car Show, the Detroit Zoo and the sites downtown where the Detroit Tigers, Lions and Red Wings play. According to a February 2013 report from the nonprofit D:hive, 10.5 million people visit the greater downtown Detroit area a year for sites like the River Walk and the Detroit Opera House.
Jeanette Pierce, the director of community relations at D:hive, which assists visitors and new residents, said that this is not the first time that there has been dire news about Detroit. “It’s not a top-down city,” she said. “There’s nothing the government is doing that is why somebody would visit here.”
The bankruptcy has added an odd layer onto what has become a thriving, albeit complicated, local art scene.
Detroit’s dismal financial situation has been a subject of minimal regard for many artists, who said that their city is far from the ghost town some might assume from the news. They point out that a rich cultural undercurrent has grown only stronger in recent years, with a rise in contemporary art. They say that the arts, in the end, may propel economic development in Detroit, as it has from Asheville, N.C., to Bilbao, Spain.
“I think we’ll have a little cloud for a while, but I don’t think it’s going to be long-lasting,” said George N’Namdi, the founder of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art and a part of the city’s artistic life for decades. “We have too many forces working on art that supersede that.”
Artists have flocked to cheap rents and have converted shuttered storefronts and abandoned buildings into studio spaces and galleries as private money has poured into the local art scene. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation began a $19.25-million commitment to local arts projects last fall, the Kresge Foundation has awarded annual fellowships to artists since 2009, and Red Bull opened its first domestic House of Art, an emerging-artist incubator, here in May 2012.
Several suburban galleries have moved back to the city, and arts hubs are solidifying. A notable one is Midtown, home to the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, as well as galleries like the Butcher’s Daughter, Re:View, and the N’Namdi center. In Southwest, a white box called What Pipeline opened in April, down the street from community-focused spaces like 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios, housed in a former police precinct. In Eastern Market, two new destinations, Inner State Gallery and Trinosophes, opened in the spring on busy Gratiot Avenue, blocks from the Red Bull House of Art.
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