When I started my guest blog series on the Art21 blog, I felt that I was riding a wave of positive press about Detroit. I don’t want the momentum of that positive press about Detroit–about Detroit’s comeback–to slow. I try to shine a light on Detroit’s positive art community as often as I can, because–like most people–I like to be inspired. During my blogging stint, I was inundated with more positive press about this community. Among others, I saw the PBS NewsHour spotlight this past Wednesday that showcased a few great people doing great things in Detroit. I was then contacted by a group in Bushwick (Bruno Design Studio) who are working on an exhibit this coming October that will highlight people doing creative work in Detroit. So the conversation about Detroit’s art scene has started and it continues to build upon itself. I love good conversations. I love those conversations where you learn more about yourself. Artists create artwork to open a dialogue. If you listen and engage, you are open to great artwork, which can tilt your perspective on life, which can make you grow, which can make you a better conversationalist. Detroit matters because it embraces the belief that artists and creative people can change a community. Detroit matters because people matter. I am thankful to Art21 for allowing me this opportunity to continue the conversation.
During Art Basel in 2010, Creative Time and Art Basel Miami Beach teamed up for Oceanfront Nights, which showcased the “big four” art cities: Berlin, Glasgow, Mexico City, and—to the surprise of many—Detroit. Similarly in 2010, the poet and rocker Patti Smith surprised many with her advice that young artists should move to Detroit, because “New York has closed itself off to the young….”
It has been two years since these two events; should artists move to Detroit? I talked to artists and gallery owners in the city to get their thoughts about Detroit and its artistic present and future. I also spoke to established and rising art stars in New York—an undeniable art capital—to compare and contrast that city’s opportunities with Detroit’s opportunities.
There are a lot of similarities and a lot of differences between the areas. New York cannot compare with Detroit in terms of cost of living, and Detroit cannot compare with New York in terms of established networks (and pure size of everything). What Detroit does have right now is a steady stream of media interest in its art scene. In fact, PBS NewsHour just ran a segment on Detroit’s art scene this past Wednesday (July 25, 2012) titled: Detroit Art City. Detroit’s art narrative has captured the imagination of many.
I initially talked to Monica Bowman, an arts professional who moved from the Detroit area to New York, and then back to the Detroit area in 2008 to start The Butcher’s Daughter Gallery in Ferndale, which is part of Detroit’s metro area. Her gallery received instant attention. She explained that the gallery has doubled its business every year, and she has been able to create a bridge between Detroit and the national art market. Part of that bridge is participating in the PULSE brand of fairs, and working with rising art stars locally and nationally.
Because of its solid foundation, I am confident that Detroit will have a renaissance in the arts (among other fields). This confidence springs from a community of art enthusiasts who invested heavily in cultural institutions. Images of abandoned buildings steal a lot of the headlines, but the media often fails to balance those images with images of the gilded and ornate buildings that house Detroit’s cultural treasures: The Michigan Opera House, The Gem Theater, The Masonic Temple, The Fisher Theater, the Fox Theatre, and The Detroit Institute of Arts, among many others.
These institutions are as good as or better than they have ever been.
Why do cultural institutions thrive in a city that has so many hurdles? Simply put, because of a community that values culture. Another benefit of Detroit’s strong foundation is the fact that these bedrock institutions educate and inspire future generations of artists and patrons. There are numerous people, both paid employees and volunteer stewards, whose passions push these institutions to provide Detroit and surrounding areas with the culture every thriving community deserves. Detroit’s rich culture flowed and continues to flow to its extensive Metro area, and beyond.
I want to highlight two museums that show the importance of anchor institutions, and that symbolize the delicate relationship between Detroit and its suburbs: The Detroit Institute of Arts and The Cranbrook Art Museum (as part of the Cranbrook Educational Community). These are two of the most influential and widely respected art institutions in the world, and they can both be found on the same street, Woodward Avenue.
Several years ago I did a portrait of a colleague. I did several preliminary sketches, I took numerous reference photos, and I poured my heart into every detail of the portrait. I had to start the portrait over on more than one occasion. In the end I created a portrait that captures her strength and energy. She hated it.
If you ever want to turn a friend to an enemy, paint a portrait of them. Portraits are a tricky art form. The artist wants to be true to his or her vision, but the sitter often wants a reflection of how they see themselves (which, at times, falls prey to the illusions of the mind where no matter what our age we always see our 18-year-old selves staring back at us in the mirror).
Jim Pallas knows the ups and downs of a portrait project. He undertook an ambitious project to paint the art giants of Detroit. He admits that some of the people he picked—artists, collectors, dealers, and critics who are “absolutely necessary for a healthy community” – are mad at him for how he portrayed them. He has some answers why: “Maybe because I showed them all lumpy. Maybe because I didn’t try to make them look younger or older. Maybe because I’ve never painted anything like this before and I’m not very good at it.” He then wonders, “Maybe my so-called career is over.”
A good novel is a mix of triumphs and tragedies. A simple narrative does not captivate people. Who would care if the novel’s hero comes in during the first couple of pages, saves the day, and then everyone lives happily ever after? People want heroes to fall again and again, and only then save the day.
Detroit’s story is a mix of triumphs and tragedies. Detroit as a community has fallen again and again. But it keeps getting back up.
It is difficult to get a picture of Detroit through headlines. The simple narrative of a once-great city that is now abandoned caters to our tendency toward Schadenfreude (a great German word for people that take pleasure in the misfortune of others). The simple narrative of a city that is being saved by the arts and artists caters to our tendency toward blind optimism. The stories that cater to these uncomplicated views of human behavior are perfect for blog posts, but not for an honest assessment of a community.
The stark contrasts between optimistic stories and pessimistic stories often follow the stark contrast in our rational and emotional natures. The pessimistic stories look at the visible material side of Detroit, the empty buildings, the municipal balance sheet, the failed and bailed-out companies, the old black-and-white photos of crowded streets. The optimistic stories often grab on to our emotional nature. That part of our nature that values art even though it does not feed us or shelter us. We value art and artists because art inspires us.
With Detroit, the optimistic stories focus on individuals. They focus on humanist ideals that inspire people individually and in groups to cause real and permanent change through their actions. So for my guest blogging stint, I will explore the people and institutions that look past empty buildings towards meaningful exchanges of ideas. These posts will explore what makes Detroit’s art scene thrive in the face of economic troubles. I will explore where Detroit is today, and the ideas for it to have a sustained growth through the arts.