Art for the future

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"In the past three years, approximately $5.5 billion has been invested to create a "New City for a New Century" in Detroit ... From small businesses to major capital projects, the City of Detroit is being transformed into a world-class city."
---City of Detroit Web site

Casinos. Stadiums. Entertainment malls. These kinds of development anchor Detroit's bid to become a world-class city. But consider places that have earned this distinction: New York, San Francisco or Paris. There are many factors that distinguish them from Detroit, but central to their allure are cultural institutions. While Detroit will never become another New York, nor would most Detroiters want it to, there is no doubt that Detroit must foster a more vibrant cultural milieu to be regarded as truly exciting by its own arts community, let alone achieve international renown.

So far, redevelopment has had a mixed effect on Detroit's cultural landscape. Two of the most notable additions to the city's cultural offerings are the new Detroit Opera House and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, which has garnered international attention; the MAAH is a prime example of the city getting financially behind an arts-related venue.

But redevelopment has also taken its toll on the arts community. Consider Harmonie Park, a former bohemian district where restaurants, offices and residential lofts have displaced many artists whose studios, galleries and performance spaces lent the area the unique flavor that made it so desirable. And the idea of redevelopment is being used to bring down artist Tyree Guyton's east side Heidelberg Project, which also boasts international appeal.

As Detroit continues to redefine itself, banking largely on the anticipated draw of big-ticket attractions, it seems appropriate to wonder what lies ahead.

View from the top

It is our vision that every corner of the City will burst with cultural and artistic activity. From intimate coffee houses and jazz clubs to a world-class opera house, community libraries to amazing film and performance theaters, hilarious comedy to internationally known museums, art galleries to a magnificent zoological park, the arts and culture contribute to the economic and cultural growth of Detroit, and to the rise of its musicians, dancers, visual artists and writers. --Mayor Dennis Archer in the Detroit Cultural Plan

The "official" prognosis for Detroit's cultural future is laid out in the city's recently released Detroit Cultural Plan. The document, developed over an 18-month period by the Department of Cultural Affairs and a 40-member citizens advisory council, touches on elements that would undoubtedly enhance Detroit's cultural environment. The bulk of the plan, however, focuses on marketing the city's cultural offerings and developing cohesion among artists and between artists and the public.

The lack of commitment to specific projects can likely be attributed to one factor: There is no funding. While Mayor Archer elevated the former cultural affairs commission to a city office (with a $790,000 annual budget), he did not provide it with a cent toward venue development. Thus, the plan is heavy on words and phrases such as "encourage," "promote" and "act as a catalyst." Discussion of funding is couched in terms of linking artists and their patrons to financial support, and in proposals for a public-private funding partnership and a percentage-for-the-arts ordinance that would finance public art at city-owned buildings.

"What we see ourselves as is as a promoter and a catalyst to make things happen," explains Marilyn Wheaton, director of the Department of Cultural Affairs. It is unlikely her boss will be providing much funding to assist her. While Mayor Archer regularly touts his commitment to the arts and culture, his redevelopment agenda shows otherwise.

For example, one of the brightest spots on the city's cultural horizon is the new Orchestra Place in the Medical Center. With plans for performance space, a restaurant and retail area, an adjoining park and relocation of the Detroit High School for the Performing Arts to the complex, this site could become the hub of a vibrant cultural district. Other than selling three parcels of land and deeding a current park to the developers for the expansion of Orchestra Hall, the city contributed nothing to the $80 million project. Click on the City of Detroit's Web site, however, and one is privy to the city's tab for the new baseball and football stadium complex: $85 million to multimillionaire team owners and their millionaire athletes.

With this lack of financial commitment from the top, it seems plausible that a select few elements of the cultural plan will materialize -- revival of summer stock theater on Belle Isle or sponsorship of more public art, for example -- as Wheaton works with arts organizations and funding sources to finance them, while the rest are ultimately abandoned.

Contemporary space

One issue not addressed in the plan is Detroit's lack of a contemporary arts center. In addition to a major arts institute, most other cities boast at least one contemporary exhibit space, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh.

"That, in my mind, as an art person, is the biggest hole," observes Dennis Nawrocki, curator of the Center for Creative Studies' Center Gallery. "Almost every other medium- to large-sized city has some sort of contemporary art center."

Nawrocki left the education department at the Detroit Institute of the Arts in the early 1980s for the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, where he stayed five years. Why the contemporary niche has not been filled in Detroit puzzles him.

"One sees a commitment to contemporary art here among many eager enthusiasts, but not among the moneyed," he says. "You need to have that level of income and collection in order to spur and support a contemporary art institution and I don't know where those people are or why they haven't shown up or why they don't make more noise."

The outlook for the establishment of a contemporary arts center looks dim. The only proposal Wheaton says she has entertained for midsized exhibit space has been for a Mustang automobile museum -- an exhibit that should attract support from at least one local auto manufacturer.

Nawrocki also bemoans the lack of consistent experimental music and theater offerings in the city, although Wheaton is backing a proposal that could help rectify that situation.

"I've been discussing with the city administration the need for performing arts venues for our small and midsized dance groups, theater groups, literary groups," she says. "That's why we need desperately a Detroit Center for the Performing Arts with different-sized venues in that compound, like in Chicago, Milwaukee and many other cities."

Despite her lack of funding, Wheaton is banking on the center materializing. "If it doesn't, I'll die trying," she says.

Grassroots art

Many of those interested in experimental and grassroots culture are watching the Heidelberg Project closely. Tyree Guyton has announced that he will dismantle his internationally known work, which currently adorns trees, empty lots and vacant and inhabited homes on Detroit's near east side. The move is spurred by opposition from some of his neighbors, from the Gratiot-McDougall United Community Development Corporation and from members of the Detroit City Council. Some feel the antagonism Guyton has faced throughout the project's 12 years portends a bleak future for grassroots art in the city. But Jenenne Whitfield, director of the project, disagrees.

"In the face of all this, behind the scenes there's this incredible energy that's building and very soon the Heidelberg Project is going to pop; it's going to explode and Detroit is going to be on the map whether they like it or not," she says.

Rita Organ, curator of exhibits at the Museum of African American History, says the city's attitude toward the Heidelberg Project, some of which was constructed on city and privately owned land, bodes poorly only for those producing a certain type of work.

"I think it's going to send a message to other artists engaging in similar activities that their work is not appreciated, but they've got to be careful how they approach what they're doing and where they're doing it," she says.

While she questions the city's lack of support for Guyton, artist and Center for Creative Studies instructor Gilda Snowden says she does not feel this controversy represents the prevailing attitude toward grassroots art.

"I think it's more situation specific, because what I've been seeing about the way in which the arts are responded to, I'm more optimistic than pessimistic," she says. Snowden sees promise in the nontraditional venues, such as coffeehouses, restaurants and limited-hour galleries, which offer opportunities for lesser-known artists to display works. Snowden herself curates a gallery in the lobby of the Detroit Repertory Theatre. Other crossover venues include Zeitgeist and the Red Door Theater at the First Unitarian Universalist Church.

What's more, Snowden points out, Detroit boasts galleries that many patrons simply don't know about, like the Metropolitan Center for the Arts on Grand Boulevard, the Arts Extended gallery in the David Whitney Building and the National Conference of Artists gallery in the Fisher Building.

Another overlooked element of Detroit's culture is its multi-ethnic communities. "People think that Detroit doesn't have culture and they're so wrong," points out Gerry Craig, curator of the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery at the Detroit Zoo and former director of the Detroit Artists Market. "In fact, the culture and life that goes on in Mexicantown is really vibrant and amazing ... and there's all kinds of wonderful, ethnic neighborhoods all over the city proper."

With a large-scale, international welcome center directing traffic from Canada to Mexicantown under development at the Ambassador Bridge and the recent national media attention focused on the hip, multi-ethnic enclave of Hamtramck, these and other ethnic areas could well hold a critical piece of Detroit's cultural future.


Key to promoting Detroit's diverse and spatially fragmented cultural offerings is designing an environment conducive to exploring them. The Detroit Cultural Plan includes recommendations to draw people to the city's cultural attractions through a variety of means, including public transportation and the establishment of districts where artists can live, work and perform.

Architect Dan Hoffman foresees pockets of activity to which patrons can drive and then explore on foot. Areas with the potential to draw pedestrian traffic include Orchestra Place and the Cultural Center, the Grand Circus Park area and Eastern Market which, with its cosmopolitan mix of retail, gallery and studio space, is poised to become the city's next hip district. Hoffman believes that area will become especially popular now that artists and performers will be steered away from the warehouses and historic buildings on the waterfront, due to the decision to locate the casinos there.

"It's a very colorful and invigorating place," he says. "My hope is that the activity that would have happened on the riverfront could possibly happen in and around Eastern Market."

Nawrocki is optimistic, too, about the activity he sees in the Cass Corridor and the Cultural Center, with C-Pop gallery moving from Royal Oak into space next to the Majestic Theater on Woodward, the opening of the new Elaine L. Jacob Gallery at Wayne State University and the possibility of the Detroit Artists Market relocating to the Cultural Center.

Ironically, some believe the new stadiums and casinos could offer a wealth of cultural opportunities. Olympia Entertainment has assured Wheaton it will incorporate public art into the design of the new baseball stadium, and Wheaton envisions galleries, performing arts spaces and culture gardens in the vicinity of the casinos. Nawrocki cautions, however, that such opportunities are relatively exclusive.

"Native Detroiters, or at least those who aren't agreeable to the idea of stadiums and casinos, are going to avoid those places," he points out.

The Heidelberg's Whitfield says attention at the top must be redirected.

"There is a lot of energy in Detroit," she insists. "The goal is, we've got to keep it here and we have to convince the powers that be that this is, I'd have to say, more important than these bullshit casinos and all the rest of this stuff that's just going to cause more problems and more poverty and more crime."

Given the lack of top-down leadership (civic funding), Detroit's cultural future may very well be determined almost exclusively by the cultural community at large. Many members of that community have already invested lifetimes into building and maintaining a healthy cultural mix. If those on the periphery wait for the city, or large foundations and corporations, or other outside players to make a move, however, any opportunity for creation of a cohesive cultural environment could be lost.

"There's a five-year window of opportunity around here," predicts Zeitgeist Gallery's Troy Richard. "It's going to suck up and go away and Detroit's going to be like any other cheesy city. It'll be the same crap. We'll have a couple cool things. If they don't get down here right now and start sucking up some of these places, (the opportunities) are just going to go away. They're not going to come."

But people not only need to come, a certain kind of synergy must develop once they are here. How that is achieved perhaps remains the most perplexing of unanswered questions.

"Why is it that all the right things come together in one area and not another place and another place and another place?" asks the Center Gallery's Nawrocki. "It's a cultural conundrum that makes for great dinner table conversation when you're all tearing your hair and beating your breast about why this or this or that is not happening in Detroit and how to make it happen."

The answer, of course, is that there is no true way to "make" a scene happen. But there are ways to nudge it along. All the people mentioned in this article, and countless others like them, have been doing just that for years, if not decades. Now they are waiting to see who will get up from the table to join them.

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