Stop Giving New York Transplants All The Credit For Detroit’s Art Scene

Move from Brooklyn to Detroit for the cheap rent: get applause. Spend years building your hometown’s arts community: get ignored.

  • Kate Abbey-Lambertz National Reporter, The Huffington Post


    Artist Tyree Guyton arranges the shoes in his 2011 Detroit installation “Street Folk.” Guyton is most known for the Heidelberg Project, a permanent public art park he began building 30 years ago, transforming vacant houses with colorful painted dots and found objects.

    While a former New York arts venue heralded for moving to Detroit could now clear a few million dollars by selling one of its recently acquired buildings, local artists who made the Motor City a cultural destination are struggling for resources and recognition.

  • It’s the latest example of how an influx of development and mostly white newcomers could shape the majority-black city as longtime residents fear they’ll be shut out of its future.

    Local artists, in particular, are grappling with the city’s changes while seeing their own work minimized, whether it’s in a recent article highlighting nine artists — all white — explaining why they live in Detroit, or in the description of a new gallery as the first of its kind in the city, or in Detroit’s place on a list of of “most influential art cities” for the achievements of people who recently moved there.

    Other longtime residents wonder why it appears to be easier for newcomers to get funding.

    “Art has always been created here, but people are now watching us more,” jessica Care moore — poet, publisher and Black Women Rock producer — told NPR last spring. “Support for the arts is a problem. Who gets the money is an issue, and people of color are last on the list.”

    Galapagos Art Space is the most notable newcomer, announcing in late 2014 that it was moving out of Brooklyn after nearly 20 years because New York had become unaffordable for artists. Galapagos’ executive director, Robert Elmes, bought eight buildings — including two former schools, a power plant and a hospital — in Highland Park, a small city surrounded by Detroit that faces similar struggles. He bought another building on the outskirts of Corktown, one of Detroit’s most desirable neighborhoods.

    Elmes described his development plan as a new funding model for the arts and has since received an abundance of praise and press.

    A mile from the Galapagos complex, another Highland Park arts space is preparing for its summer opening. So far, Liquid Flow Media Arts Center has received little media attention, grants or large investors. It’s instead relied on community support through fundraisers like the Penny for the Inner City Arts campaign, which involved Liquid Flow founder Stacy’e Jones giving organizations and businesses jars so they could collect change to donate to the arts center.

    “When I saw that [Galapagos was] coming to Highland Park, I felt like I was in a race to complete what we’ve been working on for so long, just so we don’t get overshadowed and hidden when Galapagos actually opens up,” Jones said.

    Liquid Flow Media Arts Center founder Stacy’e Jones, in gray, takes a selfie with her team while they shoot a promotional video to help raise funds.
    Galapagos is still developing its venue, which is expected to include performance space, studios, a gallery and a massive indoor lake.

    But the organization came under scrutiny earlier this month when it put its Detroit property up for sale for $6.25 million — more than 12 times what it paid for the property in 2013, Crain’s Detroit Business reported. Critics saw the proposed sale as a case of real estate speculation that contradicted Galapagos’ stated intentions and could fuel gentrification in Corktown.

    Elmes said allowing another group to redevelop the building “will have a large impact on the idea of Detroit coming back” and could stimulate economic activity in the neighborhood. He and his wife are selling the property to scale back while they focus on caring for their son, who was diagnosed with leukemia last year.

    “If we can indeed move the equity that the Corktown building has gained out into one of the neighborhoods, which haven’t shared as fairly in Detroit’s comeback as they should, then we can have an impact where it’s needed more and do it faster,” Elmes told The Huffington Post in an email.

    Erinn Currie, executive assistant for Liquid Flow, paints the former firehouse that will soon become a space for arts education.

    Liquid Flow is small compared to Galapagos’ 460,000 square feet in Highland Park, but Jones, a DJ, has a grand vision for her arts and education space. She hopes it will eventually include a recording studio in the attic, a public computer lab, a venue for art events, and classes in subjects such as computer literacy and music production.

    A few years ago, Jones was running an online radio station when teenagers slowly started showing up, asking for career guidance or advice on how to use a camera. Word spread, and one day she arrived at work to find two dozen kids crammed into the recording studio, all there to learn.

    She realized she wanted to bring that kind of environment to the youth in her own neighborhood, where the public high school and library have both been shuttered. Jones said she hopes Galapagos, which has taken over the former school, will get feedback from neighbors about what they want in the community.

    Elmes has been working with a variety of local groups, like the Highland Park High School Alumni Association, and he agreed to donate space in the former school building to store the group’s archives and display its memorabilia. Glenda McDonald, a board member and city council member who is a resident of Highland Park, said she’s excited to see how Galapagos will enrich the city.

    detroit4DARREL ELLIS
    Nandi Frye’s cafe is a beloved community gathering space in Highland Park, Michigan, a city that has few others.

    A few blocks from Galapagos, a third Highland Park venue is quietly celebrating its 10th year in business. Nandi’s Knowledge Cafe is a bookstore, gallery and restaurant that hosts weekly poetry nights, West African dance classes and film screenings.

    Like others cheering on Galapagos, owner Nandi Frye welcomes another local art space. She’s eager to see new jobs, occupants in vacant buildings and economic development for a city that critically needs them. But she still has reservations.

    “Here’s what I’m hoping, is that he doesn’t come here and that you start pushing people out of the spaces they’re in,” Frye said. “Rents go up high and you get a whole ‘nother white city — that’s what I don’t want. That’s what people are afraid of. Don’t come and make this city something else.”

    Detroit artist Tiff Massey addressed similar concerns in a track she released last week called “Detroit is Black.” In an earlier video promoting her work, which can be seen above, she confronts gentrification and rejects the often-repeated idea that the city is a “blank slate” or a canvas for newcomers’ entrepreneurial or artistic projects.

    “People live here. People live here. People live here,” Massey insists urgently as the song ends.

    Jenenne Whitfield is the executive director of the Heidelberg Project, a nonprofit that supports her husband Tyree Guyton’s decades-long public art project to transform Detroit’s vacant houses into works of art. The Heidelberg Project has withstood city-ordered demolitions and repeated arsons for the last 30 years, but Guyton is never discouraged: He simply builds something new.

    Whitfield has a similar attitude about the future of Detroit arts: “Detroit’s art scene will continue to flourish because of Detroiters. That’s it!”

    Kate Abbey-Lambertz covers sustainable cities, housing and inequality. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

    Detroit artist Kobie Solomon painted his “Chimera” mural on the side of the Russell Industrial Center, seen here in October. Measuring over 8,000 square feet, it’s reportedly the largest mural in Michigan.