20 arts and culture experiences you must have in Detroit before you die

Our Detroit arts bucket list

Mar 9, 2016 at 1:00 am

1) Bask in the grandeur of prewar design in the Guardian Building's mezzanine: The magnificent art deco building gets its Native American color theme from designer Wirt C. Rowland, who inlaid the 40-story treasure with colorful hues. But the interiors can be just as stunning. Drop in for a bite at the Rowland Café in the building's mezzanine to see an almost psychedelic display of geometric shapes all around you.

2) Visit the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library's main branch: The Detroit landmark designed by not just one, but two Cass Gilberts (senior and junior) is a great place to do some research. But the Burton collection, with its statue-studded, open two-story room, is crowded with local history. It's also most beautiful in the spring, when the trees on the lawn are in blossom on a misty morning, as seen through floor-to-ceiling windows. Who says bookworms don't get out enough?

3) See "Detroit Industry" at the DIA: If you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for? Diego Rivera's controversial mural depicts workers at Henry Ford's Rouge complex, with workers toiling over the assembly line, amid machines that look sort of like Toltec and Aztec deities. The murals have been reviled, praised, attacked, and defended, but never ignored. Every Detroiter should spend at least a few minutes looking at this monument to the workers and technicians of the Motor City.

4) Buy a black-and-white print of a penis at The Dirty Show: You gotta hand it to Jerry Vile: He turned a jerry-rigged art event into the biggest art event in town, with thousands of hotties, horndogs, and hedonists attending over two weekends. Yes, sex sells, and The Dirty Show is the perfect place to buy that immodest piece of art to add a little slap-and-tickle to your walls.

5) Seduce a mate at the Detroit Opera House: An opera is rich with seductive opportunities. Yes, the unhappy endings can be a bummer. But the rich interiors and lush staging excite the senses. The tragic stories and passionate singing inflame the emotions. Plus, nothing screams class quite as deafeningly as the opera, and your date knows it. No matter what you do later that night, that person you took to the opera will have to grudgingly admit that you at least aspire to culture.

6) Admire Orchestra Hall while watching the Detroit Symphony Orchestra: Seeing our DSO, under the baton of Leonard Slatkin, is a feast for the ears. And experiencing this in the historic gem that is Orchestra Hall instead of some modernist cube adds a note of pageantry not heard often enough.

7) Get freaked the fuck out at Theatre Bizarre: About 15 years ago, the Theatre Bizarre crew turned the backyards of a few cheap houses along State Fair Street into a creepy circus midway, hosting the city's most anarchic costume party every Halloween season. The city shut them down, but they've only expanded into a larger, crazier anarchic costume party in an established venue. It's often sold out months before it happens, but astute buyers can usually obtain a ticket or two. It's worth it; the experience is about as close as you can get to Burning Man without leaving Detroit city limits.

8) Spend a day at Cranbrook: In addition to the museum, the art school, as well as various other academies, there's much else to see and experience at Cranbrook. There are few places where you can hike through grounds this beautiful, enjoying both the historic Cranbrook House as well as the manicured gardens, which are tended by a huge group of volunteers and decorated with such art as the weeping statue of Zeus.

9) See a classic movie at Redford Theatre: The atmospheric, Japanese-themed Redford Theatre still wows audiences with its imitation sky, its crowd-pleasing programming, and the mammoth organ it fires up for silent features. The movies it shows run from Hollywood classics to evenings of Three Stooges shorts. Once threatened, it's a neighborhood jewel shined up nice and bright, thanks to the Motor City Theatre Organ Society.

10) See international cinema at the Detroit Film Theatre: Tucked away in the back of the Detroit Institute of Arts off John R, the Detroit Film Theatre has programmed a high-quality selection of hard-to-find-on-the-big-screen films for a generation or more. On any given night, chances are high you'll see a challenging work that provides plenty to talk about over drinks afterward. What's more, the seating is very comfortable.

11) Meet a ton of artists at the Russell Industrial Center: Formerly the J.W. Murray Manufacturing plant, the Russell Industrial Center is exactly the kind of industrial-turned-artistic space that starry-eyed artsy-fartsy types are thinking of when they talk about Detroit's changing economy. The sprawling complex is home to more than 100 artists, from glass blowers to clothing designers to screen printers.

12) Try not to burn down the Heidelberg Project: This neighborhood-turned-art project created by artist Tyree Guyton is an only-in-Detroit environment, with vacant houses fancifully decorated with everything from political messages to colorful dots. Everybody in the region should drop in for an afternoon to see the otherworldly fantasyland, a kind of urban protest art, that has become an international destination. It's all the more precious after being threatened by firebugs last year who systematically torched the lovingly decorated houses.

13) Enjoy the fruits of over-the-top creativity at Maker Faire: It's an annual delight that Maker Faire touches down in metro Detroit each summer. Past years have brought such dizzying joys as a moped racetrack, homemade windmills, and a 60-foot-long metal dragon that breathes fire. The event also includes a local craft fair where you can take a bit of that creativity home with you when you depart.

14) Browse the art fairs in Ann Arbor: Commonly known as the Art Fair, the event's official title is actually the Ann Arbor Art Fairs, and consists of four independently juried art fairs taking place simultaneously and contiguously throughout downtown Ann Arbor. Which means that you're sure to find just the right bit of flair to dress up your pad.

15) View an ofrenda at Detroit's day of the dead: Celebrate the Mexican tradition of ofrenda altars by visiting Southwest Detroit on Day of the Dead. Traditionally decorated with ornate sugar skulls, flowers and favorite foods, mementos and pictures of the deceased, contemporary ofrendas are created as a way to pay homage to not only people but also places, moments in time, ideas, and events that people feel are worth commemorating. It's popular art at its purest.

16) Check out some sweet cribs in Indian Village: One of Detroit's most historically affluent neighborhoods, Indian Village is home to some awesome mansions built by architects such as Albert Kahn and Louis Kamper. Catch one of the community's annual Home and Garden Tour for a peek inside some of these gorgeous homes, where you can dream about owning one. (Where else but Detroit can you buy a mansion a couple miles from downtown for $400,000?)

17) Take the Marche du Nain Rouge: In French, nain rouge means "red dwarf." In mythology, it's an imp with horns and a tail that heralds yet another disaster for the Motor City. But good luck remembering any of that by the time you've marched in this costume parade and poured into a nearby bar to drink with revelers. Thought up spontaneously several years ago, this costumed shindig draws droves of young Detroiters hoping to chase the city's bad times away. Add to their numbers.

18) See art designed to resonate in Detroit at MOCAD: You won't always see a whole lot of Detroit art at MOCAD, as the city's contemporary art museum mostly draws an exciting array of today's international art stars. But the repurposed old warehouse off Woodward Avenue hosts programming intended to engage the people of this city, and it ranges from wall hangings to sculpture to film to music to performance art to such high-concept pieces as Mike Kelley's "Mobile Homestead."

19) See a play at the Detroit Rep: The Detroit Repertory Theatre, or "the Rep" as it's often known, is tucked away on a depopulated stretch of Woodrow Wilson Street on the city's west side. For more than a half-century, "the Rep" has staged several plays a year, including plenty of national premieres of topically important work. All productions have a prestige factor, with quality sets, pitch-perfect lighting design, and a tight technical ensemble that keeps productions at the Rep on-time and humming.

20) Dress as your favorite comic book character at the Motor City Comic Con: Look, comic book guys: You probably spend 364 days of the year embracing convention and perhaps even conservatism. So when the Comic Con rolls around, screw it: Dress up like the Green Lantern and spend two months' rent on the first appearance of Ghost Rider. Hit on a girl who's dressed like Power Girl, obviously a professional model and waaay out of your league. But, who knows, she might admire your gumption. And your spandex.