Wax prophetic 

Cities in transition talk it out at Rust Belt to Artist Belt III

Last week at the College for Creative Studies Taubman Center for Design Education, a multifaceted event venue, Detroit played host to the Rust Belt to Artist Belt conference.

You know, the plotting of our future as — gasp! — artists would have it? More than 400 plugged-in thinkers showed up.

Founded in 2007 by a Cleveland group called Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, the two-day affair (largest yet) presented an opportunity for highly creative minds from Midwestern cities in post-industrial flux to engage in revealing (and self-affirming) conversations. The civic role of artists and how their work relates to community, political systems and socioeconomic constraints were focus topics. It was like debate team practice crossed with cheerleading camp.

Artists from elsewhere quickly learned how Detroit-produced arts often evoke a direct response or reflection of particular place. Our artists tend to be up on the tribulations of local politics, versed in zoning policy and permit application processes as much they are local history and urban agriculture initiatives. Many work toward defining and unifying communities, while others even try to heal wounds caused by racism, blight, commercialism and fear of impending gentrification. Our artists tend to be practical community organizers and barstool urban planners.

We should let (some of) them talk more often.

Detroit arts administrators, curators, fine artists, musicians, educators, fashion designers, record label owners, community organizers, writers, photographers, bloggers and just about every other type of artisan imaginable peopled the crowd last week. And I met contingents of similar folk from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Mo., Rockford, Ill., and London, Ontario. There was even a discussion facilitated by Yes Farm artist-in-residence Joao Evangelista and Detroit Creative Corridor Center's Bethany Betzler, via Skype, with some people from Heerlen, Netherlands, a town reeling from the effects of post-industrialism.

Convened on the 11th floor of the Taubman Center were idea people, dynamic and opinionated. When cross-cultural conversations occurred, the conference shined.

Maria Rosario Jackson, who works with the Urban Institute as well as think tank Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC), provided exciting metrics on how arts transforms communities, promoting space-making initiatives to create cultural districts, public art spaces, and the harder to quantify, impossible to ignore, power of civic stewardship.

Tim Smith, CEO of the creative services firm Skidmore Studios, lit up a panel discussion by stressing the importance of thinking of Detroit work as world-class. "Stop apologizing for being from Detroit," he said again and again.

Cornelius Harris, of world-famous techno label Underground Resistance, accented Smith, driving home the importance of using Detroit as a credential, more or less, and how that works in music and could be repeated with other arts communities.

But the conference got weighed down at times by rambling academics, most of whom struggled for substance, acted defensive and sucked wind from the room. On a panel discussing Catalysts for the Creative Economy, Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum, had a hard time addressing the role his institution plays in Detroit because, well, it's largely maintained a separatist relationship with the city, as opposed to CCS or Wayne State University. Speaking of which, WSU art historian Mame Jackson and Lenore Richards, who heads up the strategic innovation lab at Ontario College for Arts and Design, saved an otherwise drab panel.

Aside from academics, there were basically three kinds of art-thinkers at the conference: idealists, realists and futurists.

Here's the problem with an idealist, like entrepreneur, venture capitalist (and jazz guitarist?) Josh Linkner or For the Love of Cities author Peter Kageyama: In Detroit, when you talk about the arts community, it's a waste to go on about thriving on creative fortitude alone, because, though motivating in the short term, that stuff goes without saying around here. Though these were the two of the most captivating speakers, it was preacher-meet-choir.

Here's the problem with a hardline realist, such as Contemporary Art in Detroit founder Aaron Timlin or musician and music curator Joel Peterson: To steal a line, we should indeed want to keep Detroit weird, but enough already with approaching everything as an "insiders-outsiders" issue. If Detroit is where someone sees a cool opportunity, why not help cultivate it? Why do we kind of get off on being a secretive city? Yes, we'd rather see "integration not gentrification," as Peterson suggested, but shouldn't we embrace all brands of immigrants if their will is good (and they vote)?

Here's the problem with a futurist, such as Jerry Paffendorf or Manhattan design dynamo Natalie Jeremijenko, if she were to do work in Detroit: You've already heard it. For all the strange and amazing opportunities Detroit can afford the artist, the city is not a blank canvas. You can and will offend people. But, hey, maybe that's OK. Our backbones are strong and we are easily befriended. Jeremijenko, however, brilliantly addressed conference buzzword "sustainable" when she noted what a horrible word it is to describe a relationship to any person, process or community. "You would never describe a romantic relationship as sustainable?" she said. "How sad would that be? My relationship is sustainable? We should want more than sustainable."

Actually, there's a fourth kind, a hybrid academic, realist, futurist. His name is Vince Kennan. The activist and rabble-rouser Keenan led a breakaway discussion on future development that lasted hours. With seven to 10 people in the room, it was the most active, thoughtful, diverse (racially and generationally) moment of the conference that I saw. The talk was to last an hour, but, in a small room, people spoke up democratically while both keynote speakers and a wrap-up discussion led by Detroit Creative Corridor Center's Matthew Clayson went down in the main hall. This conversation focused on the hard work ahead in Detroit. This was not about back-patting or creative idealism to fashion Detroit into some sort of post-industrial utopia. It was about neighborhoods, mentorship, preservation and demolition. In large part, it was about Detroit Works. In this discussion, people from all sorts of backgrounds worked to uncover answers on how to bridge the gaps between Detroit's communities, how to create lasting impressions in our neighborhoods, how to address fears of police, of Midtown becoming a launching pad for gentrification, corporate farms, fractured art scenes. Best of all, this hours-long conversation looked at all the talking from the previous two days, and asked how it'd result in real action.

At the Rust Belt to Artist Belt III conference, we learned that Detroit artists have much to share with those working out of other rust belt cities, such as St. Louis, Cleveland and Indianapolis. We also learned that many of those artists are looking to Detroit for answers, as if we're some sort of experienced older brother. To the surprise of many and perhaps to the dismay of a few, several people to whom I spoke during the conference were either considering moving to Detroit or already had plans in the works to do so.

They're looking for work, not jobs.

More by Travis R. Wright

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