After a major financial collapse, Motor City’s creatives are joining forces. So could the artists and gallerists behind the resurgence get the whole of Detroit into gear?
Some of the world’s best emerging art scenes can be found in struggling cities; low rents and loose regulations attract creatives who don’t have money to spare. But not all cities manage to move beyond that scrappy stage and create a solid art market. When Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013 after decades of mismanagement, corruption and racial segregation, what was once one of the richest cities in the US became a case study for post- industrial decline. But the city’s fortunes are changing – and its cultural scene is a central part of the comeback.
“Detroit has felt so undervalued,” says Bridget Finn, partner and managing director of contemporary gallery Reyes Finn. The gallery, in an old bank building in Corktown, exhibits local and international artists. When Finn moved to New York 16 years ago, the appetite for art in Detroit was different. “There weren’t a lot of jobs in the art world,” she says. She subsequently took up a post as director of contemporary art at renowned gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, the scene grew and the collector base expanded. After years in New York, Finn felt motivated to move home and do her job in a city that she loved. “I wanted to see what was possible,” she says. Taking that risk has paid off. “Whenever we arrive at an art fair, people are so genuinely curious about what’s happening in Detroit.”
She wasn’t the only one to embrace the city’s potential: M Contemporary Art gallery opened in the Ferndale neighbourhood to represent Detroit-based artists, while David Klein Gallery took over a building on the central Washington Boulevard to make space for larger, ambitious commissions. Library Street Collective also set up shop a few blocks away in a transformed corner of Downtown.
What all these spaces share is an interest in growing a self-sustaining scene that makes championing local voices commercially viable, which increasingly means giving more room to black creatives. Despite being home to venerable institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit has historically given little space to the black community in its traditional venues, which is remarkable, considering the city’s population is 78 per cent black.
That’s why initiatives such as Bulk Space are important: this collective – housed inside a large, barn-like building – provides marginalised artists with residencies and exhibition spaces, as well as tools to expand their skills. “These include applying for grants, doing budgets – all those things artists have to learn on a whim,” says executive director Jes Allie. Only through a platform that provides such resources, from financial support to business workshops, can many creatives forge feasible careers.
Established artists are also putting in the effort to lift up the scene around them. “The art world in Detroit is really supportive,” says Mario Moore, a painter known for his portraits. After studying at Yale, he left New York to make his way back to his native Detroit, in part so he could have more space. “This is my first studio with a kitchen in it,” he says, walking around his roomy workshop in Core City. Not only is rent in Detroit affordable but artists like Moore, whose mother is also an artist here, are keen to become part of the city’s new narrative. His ambition to open an art support space for people who might not otherwise have access to the creative industry was a big influence on his decision to return. “I know so many talented artists in Detroit,” he says. “They didn’t go to Cranbrook or Columbia or Yale. But they need to be seen and heard.”
“Whenever we arrive at an art fair, people are so genuinely curious about what’s happening in Detroit”
This sense of personal responsibility in contributing to everybody’s success is fundamental for many who are based here. Tiff Massey, an interdisciplinary artist who graduated from Cranbrook and has exhibited her work globally, has turned her attention to developing properties in places where she intends to host artist residencies in the future.
“It’s about making sure that people who look like me have access to mentorship,” she says, as she guides monocle through the building she recently bought – an old clinic on the outskirts of Downtown. “If you’re not seeing anybody who looks like you doing these things, you don’t know that it’s accessible.” Similarly, acclaimed artist Matthew Angelo Harrison, who previously worked in the prototyping department at the city’s Ford factory and today uses 3D printing, resin and robotics for his pieces, wants to create more space for younger artists. “What you do with your platform is really important,” he says from his factory-like studio.
However, what’s perhaps going to give Detroit’s art scene its biggest boost is the commercial interest drummed up by a sizeable art event, such as the new Art Mile. Specifically intended to highlight Detroit-based artists, the show was launched during the pandemic, when travel wasn’t possible. “We wanted to do something that was a cultural, city-wide event platform but that could live on the internet too,” says gallerist Finn, who is also co-founder of Art Mile. “If I have a client in New York, they might see something from a gallery they’ve never come across before.”
The event, which gathered about 80 exhibitors in its maiden online edition, will evolve into an in-person occasion that will encourage people to visit shows taking place across the city. It has already been successful in drawing a broader audience to Detroit’s galleries; Finn has seen a noticeable uptick in younger collectors. “Since the pandemic, I have met a number of people who have moved here,” says Finn. “Being able to direct these people to find artworks, or support an artist or art space, is an easy thing to do.”
Could this spirit of camaraderie be the secret to Detroit’s newfound cultural success? Up-and-coming art scenes should take note: playing nice with your neighbours really does pay off.