Monday, August 25, 2014

Can art save Detroit?

The Artist (detail), Grand River Avenue Creative Corridor
I wasn’t prepared for Detroit. Now that I’ve been there I wonder if anything could have prepared me for the experience, for the shock. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried. I’d read about the city’s troubled history, the bankruptcy and current malaise. I’d seen some of the many photos that have been taken of its storied architectural monuments in ruins—so many that they spawned an entire genre dubbed “ruin porn.”

That wasn’t why we chose to visit Detroit, my friends and I. The ruins have been exploited for whatever potential they possessed, an act of desperation in a city with few opportunities for economic gain. You can still find guided tours of decaying parts of the city. And it’s true that the towers with their vacant windows and hollowed interiors create an awesome and horrifying spectacle. But what affected me more deeply were the endless blocks of boarded or burned out houses and the great swathes of simply empty land in the middle of what was once the fourth largest city in the country.

The second, more hopeful surprise was the art.

Mural, Grand River Avenue Creative Corridor
Blight attracts graffiti like a dead carcass attracts flies and Detroit is awash in graffiti. But as we drove through certain neighborhoods the graffiti gave way to far more accomplished and serious murals. These often were painted in the very places you would expect to see graffiti and in fact, the murals and graffiti were so intimately intertwined that it could be difficult to disentangle the two. Moreoever, although I am no graffiti expert, it seemed that a substantial percentage of the graffiti itself had higher aesthetic aspirations than typical tagging.

We weren’t there to see graffiti. My wife and I and four friends were on a pilgrimage to see the renowned and recently controversial Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Talk of selling off its world-class collection to pay the city’s creditors following the bankruptcy has died down of late—fortunately. However, the mere idea that such an important public asset could have been dispersed inspired us to see what we might have missed.

Mural by Diego Rivera (detail), Detroit Institute of Arts
We were not disappointed. If we had done nothing else, visiting the DIA was worth the 7-hour drive to Detroit. The magnificent 27-panel cycle of murals by Diego Rivera in the central court is justly famous. But the entire collection is of such a high caliber that I would rank it among the best museum collections I’ve had the privilege to visit. For me it was an added boon that the superlative works of art by well-known masters often were not the ones made familiar through reproductions. 

The quality of the DIA collection was not a surprise. After all, it had been assessed for billions of dollars in anticipation of the proposed sell-off. (True! Estimates varied between four and eight billion dollars.) The surprise, given the distressed conditions, was the vitality of the contemporary art scene and the many creative projects going on elsewhere in the city. We managed to visit several, mostly in passing. At two sites, however, we were given extended personal tours.

Love. Grand River Ave. Creative Corridor offices
Driving away from downtown on Grand River Avenue is one of the places where you suddenly realize the graffiti has been supplanted with artistic murals. The Grand River Creative Corridor, as it is known, was a deliberate initiative by a real estate executive to transform the depressed strip into a creative hub that would attract tourists, artists, new businesses, entrepreneurs, and investors. Its website boasts of “over 100 murals on 15 buildings; an outdoor fine-art gallery at a bus stop; free-standing art installations;” along with cleanup efforts along the corridor.

Decorated abandoned house, African Bead Museum
Also on Grand River Avenue is the African Bead Museum. Unfortunately, we never got there during visiting hours, so we only saw the buildings from the outside. But what a treat that was! We happened upon it following an evening thunderstorm. This abandoned house, transformed into a sparkling gem with colorful designs and faceted fragments of mirrored glass, reflected a stunning sunset. The rainbow that rose over the house seemed to symbolize the potential for art to further catalyze revitalization.

Mural, Russell Industrial Center Arts Building
Within walking distance of our midtown hotel was the Russell Industrial Center, a former automobile body and parts manufacturing complex. Its post-industrial identity, like so many similarly abandoned factories, revolves around the arts, with studio space for visual artists and filmmakers. Milwaukeeans familiar with Riverwest’s Nut Factory will have to imagine that building bulked up about three times its size and then multiplied by 5. It covers “millions of square feet,” according to its website. I could fit only a fraction of the complex in a single photo.

The Alley Project
It would have been hard to find The Alley Project (TAP) without a guide. Fortunately, we were able to follow our friend Holly, an art therapy professor at Wayne State University, to the Southwest Detroit neighborhood where it’s located—literally in the alleys behind the houses. Holly introduced us to Erik Howard, the founder of TAP, on the street where he lives. Howard explained that the garage door murals that are the most visible manifestation of TAP really are incidental to the mission, which is to facilitate community relationships and improve the lives of participants. TAP connects creative young people with homeowners, who often are elderly and alone.

The Alley Project
Howard told us that the process has empowered over 120 youth, decreased gang activity and vandalism in its highly diverse neighborhood, and increased community togetherness and pride. In an example of working locally and thinking globally, TAP also has attracted international attention. Some of its student artwork has been showcased at the Venice Biennale. A pop up gallery in a well maintained vacant lot—outfitted with a secure bike rack—sees constant use. Indeed, we witnessed one young man (above) adding his spray-painted contribution.
Rodriguez with sculpture: Sun Dial
The granddaddy of Detroit socially engaged, community-oriented art projects is the Heidelberg Project. For 28 years artist Tyree Guyton has used two city blocks on Detroit’s east side as canvas and bully pulpit. When we arrived curator and sculptor Lisa Rodriquez was weeding around one of several of her installations on the front lot, which serves as an informal gateway into the Heidelberg Project proper.  Rodriquez’s piece was an enormous sundial in the shape of an artist’s palette. Brick pavers were embedded with melted and flattened glass liquor bottles salvaged from nearby vacant properties. She explained the symbolism of the piece and its relationship to her Native American heritage.

Rodriguez then took us on a formal tour around the two-block extent of the Heidelberg Project. When it began, Guyton was inspired to use art to stem the deterioration of his neighborhood. The mission was to improve the lives of those living in the neighborhood, much as Howard is doing with TAP. The houses themselves are integral to the art, as subject, object, and metaphor. Through the years Guyton has achieved both notoriety and acclaim and the project has grown in scope and popularity. Over 275,000 people visited the site in the past year, we were told. I’m not sure if that figure includes the surreptitious visitors who have torched some of the houses in the project.

Setbacks such as arson seem to provide Guyton with new inspiration. The charred foundations of at least four houses have been memorialized with new installations of found materials. One of them, Rodriguez explained, was once the home of Wilson Picket. Other famous names such as former White House Press Corps Helen Thomas are associated with the neighborhood as well.

View of Heidelberg Project with Pink Hummer
There were things about the project that I found invigorating, particularly its community activism and educational outreach programming. But some of the art itself appeared a bit tired to my eyes. Cast off stuffed animals and other paraphernalia of everyday life have become weather beaten after 28 Michigan winters. Such natural progression is to be expected for assemblages exposed to the elements, of course. But in the end the question that I still found burning was this: With all of the attention being paid and with the substantial financial support for the project (among other things an expensive new solar powered security system to prevent vandalism recently went online), why aren’t the houses themselves in better condition?

What does success look like for these artists? Is Detroit being saved one alley, one block, one abandoned factory, and one street at a time? The artists we met believe in the process. Their commitment to their art is matched by their commitment to the community. This is laudable and encouraging. Such local efforts may succeed where the grand gesture failed.

Renaissance Center
Detroit tried architecture. The grandiose and maligned Renaissance Center, built in the late 1970s, was intended to revitalize the already depressed city. The world’s largest private development at the time, it quickly became a textbook case for how not to revitalize a city. Recent renovations to the buildings and also to the riverfront, along with other investments in the downtown area have led some to predict that Detroit has reached a turning point. According to a recent article in the New York Times “a growing chorus of optimists in Detroit is saying that the time is right to invest,” the time-honored investment principle being “buy low.”

Some things have indeed changed. We toured the Riverwalk and ate in Greektown. We rode the “people mover,” a short loop around downtown that is Motor City’s gesture to mass transit. The place bustled with people; business appeared to be booming. We could imagine that things are improving. We could hope.
Much of the inner city has gone feral
But leaving downtown still involves running a seemingly endless gauntlet of vacant, overgrown lots and graffiti-scarred abandoned buildings. It will take more than angel investments to save Detroit. It will also take more than art. But the artists working on the ground, in the neighborhoods seem to be making a difference.

Tyree Guyton’s work now hangs in the DIA along with Rivera, Van Gogh, Warhol, and a host of other famous names. That is the traditional measure of success for an artist. But as Rodriguez guided us down Heidelberg Street we passed Guyton standing on the sidewalk near an assemblage. He was surrounded by a small group of attentive children and speaking to them with animated gestures. When someone asked if we could be introduced Rodriguez told us he preferred not to be interrupted. Clearly, teaching the next generation was a high priority.

Guyton’s fame will not save Detroit; even his art won’t save Detroit; but his example—and Howard’s and other artists all over the city—just might do the trick.

Boogaloo, by Tyree Guyton (DIA)
To see more images from our pilgrimage to Detroit go to my flickr album.


  1. Great piece, Eddee. I'm passing it on to a friend of ours who has lived in Detroit his whole life and isn't going anywhere!

  2. Thank you. I'd love to know what folks in Detroit think.

  3. This is great. Makes me want to jump in my car and drive, drive, drive.