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Art and a Crumbling Economy

In June of this year, the Detroit Institute of Arts, a grand institution founded in 1885 and endowed with one of the United States’ most valuable art collections, began to receive some unexpected visitors.  

First there was the IRS agent paying a house call. Then representatives of Christie’s auction house came around investigating the museum’s holdings, probing its value. Their motivations, as of yet, weren’t clear to museum staff or the city’s residents.

Then, on July 18, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy, the largest city to ever do so in our country’s history. Facing a population that didn’t so much dwindle as fall off a cliff, a sprawling urban infrastructure so impossible to upkeep that 40 percent of its streetlights went dark, and a failing auto industry as its sputtering pacemaker, Detroit accrued $18.5 billion in long-term debt and a budget deficit over $380 million, a figure only set to grow. 

The state hired lawyer and bankruptcy expert Kevyn Orr as its emergency manager, the pied piper who was supposed to lead Detroit into solvency by restructuring the city’s financial burdens. Endowed with the power to end government contracts and fire elected officials, it was Orr’s job to figure out where the city could cut back. It was also Orr who sent for Christie’s.

In early August, Orr announced that he would pay the auction house $200,000 to appraise “a portion of the city-owned collection” at DIA, according to the emergency manager’s office. This is a collection that includes major works by Vincent van Gogh, Picasso, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Joan Mitchell, Andy Warhol, and hundreds of other historically significant artists, not to mention the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s infamous 1933 27-panel fresco Detroit Industry, which attracted public controversy with its portrayal of different races working together and a nativity scene with the wise men replaced by doctors and scientists administering a vaccination to baby Jesus. Rivera later cited the paintings as the pinnacle of his career. The whole DIA package is worth well over a billion dollars. 

How could the city possibly pawn its cultural heritage to pay off just a small percentage of its debt? Good question, but the truth is that Orr isn’t setting up for-sale signs just yet, and even if he did, the offloading of all of that work would likely depress the global art market, and the city wouldn’t even make the maximum amount of profit off the deal.

The Christie’s appraisal is simply part of Orr’s effort to tabulate the city’s finances. But by lumping iconic paintings in with replaceable city infrastructure like garages and parking meters, Orr is denigrating the status of visual art and failing to recognize a major force driving Detroit’s renewal—namely, artists.

There are two dominant Detroit narratives being told today. One is of the once-great city fallen: the grand, empty buildings choked with rubble like Michigan Central Station and the Packard plant, far from adequate police forces, and acres of foreclosed homes. The other is of a resurgent utopia. Detroit’s cheap rents and abundant available spaces are drawing the creative class back to the city, a group who are not only providing an influx of money to the economy but also helping to develop a new, more sustainable kind of infrastructure in the form of urban gardens, co-working spaces, and improvised galleries. What’s happening in Detroit is “what happened in Berlin after World War II,” Radu, a young Detroit artist, said.

DIA’s director Graham Beal has been leading the museum since 1999. He arrived in Detroit because he wanted to “try something new, a new way of presenting art to the public that didn’t start from the point of view of a historian.” His initiatives have included transforming the museum’s courtyard into an accessible public space (“a cross between an airport lounge and Starbucks,” he says) as well as launching Inside Out, a series of (waterproof) reproductions of masterpieces from DIA’s collection installed in public places throughout the city.  

Beal sees Orr’s categorization of DIA’s art as an asset of Detroit “an implicit threat.” The museum doesn’t see its art as a possession of the city government. Instead, it’s part of a charitable trust established between DIA and its patrons and donors. Guidelines for American museums largely prohibit the selling off, or deaccessioning, of collection objects for any other reason than buying more art, and even then the practice is controversial.  In its policy on deaccessioning, the Association of Art Museum Directors writes, “Member museums should not capitalize or collateralize collections or recognize as revenue the value of donated works.” A DIA sale would fly directly in the face of that credo; even if it survived, DIA could face expulsion from the group as well as the withdrawal of support from communities around Detroit. 

The details of the possible sale are far from stable. Orr spokesman Bill Nowling has explained that they don’t plan to sell off DIA’s art, per se, but rather leverage it to raise money for the city. "Christie's wants to come to the table with alternatives that generate revenue, substantial revenue, without changing the ownership of the art,” he said. “They didn't just want to come and value the art. They wanted to come and find a solution that would preserve the art.” This raises the confusing possibility of selling the ownership title to the art without allowing it to leave the museum, or working out some kind of sponsorship deal. The problem remains that Orr is treating art as pure capital.

For DIA, art is much more than a commodity to be bartered or a political bargaining chip. It’s a tool to reconnect people in a place that desperately needs knitting together. Like Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural that depicts diverse groups of people, ideologies, and businesses coming together within the space of the city, DIA’s collection provides a lynchpin for the city’s creative revival, which the museum is committed to staying in the center of. “The community is really what we’re working on,” Beal said. 


Detroit's Art Community

Amy Kaherl, a DJ, activist, and artist who makes large-scale installations, is emblematic of the younger generation working to reanimate cultural life in Detroit.  She’s also part of the public that Beal is trying to cultivate as he fights for the museum. Kaherl grew up in the city’s suburbs, but fled the area to go to college in Grand Rapids. She returned five years ago because of a family illness, but decided to stay after observing how her hometown had changed. “The infrastructure is getting more solid,” she said. “People are not just going downtown and then leaving but staying and having dinner and going to a gallery.”

In 2011, Kaherl started managing Detroit SOUP, a pop-up event founded in 2010 by Kate Daughdrill and Jessica Hernandez that serves up a collective dinner for $5 a head and hosts presenters who pitch a four-minute proposals for projects in the city, ranging from art pieces to agriculture, technology, and education initiatives. Diners vote on the projects they like, and the winner receives a grant drawn from the admission fees. Starting from the first 40-person dinner, over 6,000 Detroiters have attended, with an average of 225 participants per event.  

SOUP has funded projects like a volunteer garbage collection service, a coffee shop that shows the work of local artists, and screen-printing workshops for high school students. “It’s about bringing communities together to provide a new town hall, for people to explore new ideas,” Kaherl said. Together, the artistic community is creating a new support network that’s growing underneath the fractured facade of civic infrastructure.

Art grows out of the cracks in Detroit. The Lincoln Street Art Park and Sculpture Center is a public exhibition space that’s nicknamed the “ghetto Louvre” for its dozens of murals and collection of anonymous sculptures that turn garbage into art. A giant dinosaur, the silhouette of a suited gentleman cut out of steel, a spray-painted sketch of a giant owl’s head—it’s a demonstration of the ingenuity and flexibility to turn around a space that’s been “left behind,” as Kaherl put it. The ghetto Louvre gets its materials from Recycle Here!, Detroit’s first-ever recycling center, founded in 2005. It began as a grassroots neighborhood project and gradually evolved into a government-supported fixture as well as a creative inspiration. 

Another artistic organization that echoes this spirit of inventive improvisation is OmniCorp, a multipurpose lab and hackerspace in Detroit’s booming Eastern Market neighborhood, an area that could be considered the Brooklyn of Detroit for its density of artist studios and galleries. OmniCorp was founded in 2011 by Jeff Sturges, a former architecture student and veteran of several other hackerspaces, including NYC Resistor

Radu, a young artist and member of OmniCorp, is a graduate of the city’s College for Creative Studies, where he studied animation.He speaks quietly yet confidently with the slang lilt of the student he was until just recently, comes to the 8,000-square-foot space to work on his interactive new media art installations and take advantage of the burgeoning crew of makers inhabiting OmniCorp. “It inspires you to keep your game sharp,” he said. The space hosts bimonthly open hack nights and machining classes for all comers. 

Radu’s comparison of Detroit to post-World War II Berlin might be a bit heavy-handed (Detroit is only figuratively bombed-out), there is the sense that anything is possible. Berlin’s massive buildings “became abandoned, artists took them over for cheap rent, and spawned a whole art culture,” he said. He’s watching the metamorphosis happen in his own city.

“How broke it is is really liberating,” he explained. There’s not as much of the pressure for self-promotion that exists in larger art scenes like those in New York or Los Angeles, and the city’s lack of public infrastructure, a full police force, for example, means it can still be the kind of “poor but sexy” open urban playground that Berlin once was, but is now too costly. “We get away with stuff,” the artist said. “We ride our mopeds in the middle of the streets, shoot golf balls into warehouses like Fight Club. We have it to ourselves.”

Street Art Thrives

That culture of permissibility finds its most colorful expression in street art and graffiti. Just down the street from OmniCorp in Eastern Market is Inner State Gallery, a space founded by Jesse Cory, a programmer and video producer who grew up in Romeo, Michigan, a village of just a few thousand people. Cory started coming to Detroit as a teenager and moved downtown at 18. After a few years, he moved to New York, but returned as 9/11 knocked out the city’s film industry. Though he doesn’t paint himself, Cory joined with his friends in the graffiti community to launch a boutique that turned into an art gallery, and, recently, into a kind of creative agency that connects artists to opportunities for working in public.

Inner State is housed in a building Cory and friends bought and renovated, adding studios, an artist residency, and office space, as well as cultivating a full-time staff of 12. The gallery mounts exhibitions of renowned lowbrow, street art, and graffiti-oriented artists like Askew, Camilo Pardo, and Ron Zakrin. A sister website called 1xRun sells limited-edition prints by Essam, Revok, and David Chung, among others; profits from sales go toward funding plane tickets and paint for more artists to come to Detroit and add to the city’s visual culture.

The team has completed around 20 murals, including work by Revok, Okuda, Askew, Ron English, and Detroit’s own Malt. They built on a phenomenon that was already happening—graffiti artists were flocking to Detroit because of the opportunities of empty, unprotected urban space. Despite a crackdown on street art in the early 2000s, “here you can post up and cop cars will just pass by,” Cory said. “We had a deluge of people coming here from all over the world.”

Inner State and 1xRun have taken heat for passing over local talent for big international names. But Cory sees it differently. “We elevate everybody,” he said. This new generation of muralists has become an integral part of Detroit’s brand, becoming the city’s “ambassadors to the global art movement,” as Cory put it. It harkens back again to Rivera’s “Detroit Industry,” a public artistic creation that ignited a debate not just about aesthetics but the political environment of the city and the ideology of the world around it.  

The murals function as gateway drugs to a wider community. Graffiti has “opened people’s eyes to art in general,” he said. “It’s placed in the public domain and there’s no entry fee to engage with the art.” It also helps educate the next generation of taggers when the city’s educational system isn’t giving cultural activities much airtime. Graffiti “planted a seed in those kids who might not have art in their schools—they take it with them to the next level where they want to become artists.”

Street art is also a commercial opportunity beyond print sales. There are bike- and bus-tours running through graffiti-heavy neighborhoods, forming a cottage industry. “Tourism in our area has picked up exponentially,” Cory noted. Where visitors would previously come to gawk at crumbling structures and empty factories, they now become voyeurs of the city’s revival, cheering on its nascent signs of life and, just maybe, becoming a part of it. 

What Kind of City Does Detroit Want To Be?

Detroit’s image has undergone some drastic changes, from the original golden age of Motor City through its very public failure during the economic crisis and finally to its status as a center of experimental urbanism. The ultimate question is less whether Detroit will survive than what kind of city it wants to be. Will Detroiters choose to become a true creative capital or just end up as another city known for turning art into money?

“They can’t build condos and convert lofts fast enough,” DIA director Graham Beal said of Detroit’s downtown. The city’s unique grandeur is even attracting blue-chip artists like Shirin Neshat and Matthew Barney for projects. Neshat, an Iranian video artist and director, recently had an exhibition at DIA and was surprised by the response from the community when she gave a talk about her work. “I was expecting a small audience. The door to the auditorium opened and suddenly the room filled with hundreds of young, exquisitely dressed” bohemians, she wrote to me in an email. “This crowd reminded me of the Berlin art community: elegant, confident and totally original.”

Detroit’s creaking ship will inevitably turn around. The city is now embarking on the path to defining what it will become over the next few decades. “Detroit is at the edge of becoming America’s most culturally vital city today, precisely because of the hardship it has endured and the range of artists it has attracted to itself,” Neshat predicted. 

Though the threats to the integrity of DIA’s collection are serious, the most important thing for Detroit to do is continue to provide a home for the same emerging art and artists that the Iranian artist noticed, staying open to the world and to new ideas, and maintaining its work-in-progress atmosphere. “Artists thrive in cities that struggle…where they can inject a sense of optimism, mobilization, and, ultimately, inspiration that is so needed at times of crisis,” Neshat wrote.

“The people who were a part of Detroit when it wasn’t cool were artists,” Amy Kaherl said. They will continue to play as vital a role in shaping the city now that it’s cool once again.