That's Kresge Foundation President Rip Rapson describing the Kresge Arts in Detroit (KAID) initiative at its onset, two years ago. Painter and sculptor Charles McGee had just been named KAID's first "Eminent Artist," receiving a fat, no-strings-attached check for $50,000. Soon after, 18 visual artists, including Tyree Guyton, Cedric Tai, Kristin Beaver, Senghor Reid and Gordon Newton, were named the first class of KAID fellows and awarded each $25,000. Such an aggressive approach to arts support was almost startling. The fellows went on a professional development weekend retreat and attended workshops and panel discussions facilitated by the arts advocacy organization ArtServe throughout the year. Then came the announcement of another eminent artist, jazz icon Marcus Belgrave.
Kresge was the talk of the town. And it's carried on like that.
Last summer, in the College for Creative Studies' Center Galleries, converted into a boardroom, the next class of fellows sat around a horseshoe of tables. Some were excited while others were nervous, almost embarrassed. Musicians, dancers and writers talked through smiles. And like the visual artists the year before, all were serious players in their respective scenes. Classical, jazz, hip hop and punk musicians were there, so were poets and critics, journalists and fictionists, a break dancer and a flamenco dancer.
Before the fellows introduced themselves, clockwise, KAID Director Michelle Perron paused for reflection. This money, she noted, would allow the artists to pay bills and make art, simultaneously, with a plush cushion. Others could fund dream projects, or travel. Others might go the dentist, finally.
Perron drove home the importance of the role each fellow is to play in the Detroit community at large. She stressed staying in Detroit, making clear how they can enrich the whole region's cultural landscape, like it or not, just by doing what they do. The award money is a pure gift. Nothing is required of the fellows. They don't even have to attend the ArtServe sessions if they don't want to.
The only responsibility a Kresge fellow has is to continue to produce art.
Art X is a five-day onslaught of arts and culture programming featuring all of the Kresge Artists, and then some. It's a celebration of Detroit's other manufacturing sector — the cultural arts.
That's Michelle Perron, last week. She says that during the planning stages of Art X, "several of the fellows from varying disciplines approached each other with ideas on how to collaborate and create some unique exhibition." The year-long getting-to-know-you agenda, she says, turned into a "creative laboratory among the fellows."
According to art critic and 2010 Kresge Fellow Vince Carducci, the collaborative bean was planted on day one.
"You start to have a good feeling about one another when someone's giving you a big check," Carducci says. "Funny what that does to your attitude." But really, he says, "it came together for many of the fellows in the beginning of October, during the weekend retreat."
During the weekend, reps from the national nonprofit Creative Capital presented professional development workshops. "It's like scientology or something," Carducci continues. "You're in a room together for an entire weekend. But unlike Scientology, they let you get up to go to the bathroom."
Carducci says that they learned about capitalism, "so that we can use those tools for our own artful end. Essentially it was about redirecting those capitalistic tools into a creative practice."
Cezanne Charles, director of creative industries at ArtServe, produces the weekend retreat, which she calls the "weekend intensive," as well as the yearlong development sessions.
"Creative Capital developed an extensive and robust system of support for these artists," she says. And the rigorous support strategy carries on throughout the year, because it's her job to make it as fulfilling an experience as possible.
"When you think about it in the context of your full artistic career, this yearlong series of Fellowship workshops is short," Charles says. "So what's really lasting? And is what's lasting something that can help to sustain the artist's practice?"
The answer is community.
Charles believes that Kresge and ArtServe will have real and lasting impression on Detroit, and that evidence is found in the abundance of community support and community dialogue. "Those aspects cannot be forced or artificially manufactured," she says. "We only help present opportunities, and I think we've presented some pretty good ones."
Shortly after the weekend retreat, Carducci was offered his first project as a newly named Kresge Fellow. Becky Hart, associate curator of contemporary art at the Detroit Institute of Arts asked him to curate a series of readings at the DIA. Without hesitation, he extended invitations to his fellow Kresge fellows. The group has functioned as a sort of microcosm of the arts community.
"As each cycle of fellows became established, we knew that to they'd become tied together somehow because of this honor that they received," KAID director Perron says. "But the collaborative power that's come out of it has been an amazing byproduct of the program."
Charles says that while there is some magic to be found in the collaborative energy surrounding the fellows, that was actually part of the plan.
"When we were planning the professional development, we wanted to emphasize that long after we bring all those guests into town to talk to the artists, and long after all our conversations, the thing that stays, if we've done it well and done it right, is the network."
I asked Carducci to imagine what the Kresge Fellowship would be like without the ArtServe professional development side of things.
"You'd maybe see each other around town and share a great feeling for a moment, then that'd be it," he says.
Carducci already knew other fellows, such as fellow writers Lynn Crawford and Chris Tysh. As a music fan, he knew Frank Pahl and Joel Peterson and has attended their concerts. Then there's A. Spencer Barefield. "We went to college together, lived on the same floor in the dorms, and often stayed up all night drinking, listening to John Coltrane," Carducci says. "But I didn't know who the other people were and probably wouldn't have known them unless somehow we ran into each other somewhere random around town. I would've never met Invincible — and let me tell you, she is awesome, smart as hell, amazing."
Carducci, sounding like a man being treated for an art addiction, says "the ArtServe meetings have done something, but you have to want to take advantage of it." What he means is that some artists have been more into it than others, however he doesn't fault any artist for wanting to be private, noting some of the best artists, such as Gordon Newton, are basically social hermits.
Still, the critic stays high on the power of the group.
"At the last meeting, just the writers got together and kind of recognized that there was a group within the group," he says. "Writers of fiction and creative nonfiction have a whole different thing going on than the poets, we learned. And the poets are known really well outside Detroit. So now other writers are trying to see what they're doing, Lynn Crawford and Steve Hughes are now doing a reading together, inspired as a direct result of the ArtServe meeting. And let's not forget the visual artists — the way they represent so many practices, now who knows how they might cross-pollinate with one another? It's an amazing yet unintended consequence."
That unintended consequence between the fellows will be a common theme at Art X.
The flamenco dancer Valeria Montes is collaborating with break dance vet Haleem "Stringz" Rasheed and Detroit Symphony Orchestra double bassist Rick Robinson. Robinson will later perform with rapper and activist Invincible and singer Monica Blaire. Experimental jazz heads Pahl and Peterson are teaming up for a show. Visual artist Chido Johnson will lead a wire car cruise in collaboration with students and other area artists in front of the DIA. There'll be a talk featuring a panel of fellows that includes Susan Goethel Campbell, Tyree Guyton, Chido Johnson and Cedric Tai. Poets Vievee Francis, Rachel Harkai and Matthew Olzmann will share a stage.
And, of course, there will be countless solo exhibitions of visual art, as well as music, dance and reading performances.
Art X might prove as overwhelming as it is awesome.
And if that byproduct of collaborative energy among artists can be harnessed, then we might be on the verge of the unprecedented arts explosion some say Detroit's been gearing toward.
"That these artists could be such a resource for each other and leverage their individual networks to benefit the whole to the extent they have has been a genuine surprise for everyone," Charles says.
"The interesting thing about the art scene in Detroit right now," Carducci says, "is that it's getting very communal."
Art X runs Wednesday, April 6, through Sunday, April 10, at multiple Midtown venues (DIA, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Scarab Club, Majestic Theatre, and Leopold's Books). For more info, see artxdetroit.com.