Margaret Shepard  | June 2, 2014

Detroit Art City

Did austerity deliver us punk rock and Dadaism? The idea that economic afflictions such as stagflation or the wreckage of a war-torn continent could cultivate great artistic movements isn’t new; it’s the bedrock of the entire starving-artist archetype in all its romantic glory. In lean times, the tortured, struggling artist finds his or her voice, from Dickens’s bleak industrial England to the misery of the Great Depression – when Steinbeck and Picasso created their best work – and through the economic struggles of the 1970s, when Hollywood experienced its second Golden Age of cinema.

If “hardship = great artistic achievements” were a proven formula, you could argue that Detroit is due for a fecund period of creative expression. (I won’t bore you with the statistics, just know that Detroit is in debt to the tune of $20 billion.)

In good times and bad, Detroit has always been at the forefront of creative trends — from Motown, to the proto punk music in the 1960s and ‘70s (MC5, Iggy Pop), to house and techno music, as well as the garage-rock riff revivalism typified by the White Stripes in the early 2000s.

Yet what sets apart the current moment for the arts in Detroit is the emergence of private investment in the fine arts. So as the city’s largest art museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, struggles to retain its impressive collection, private foundations are funding new arts projects across the city. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation began a $19.25 million commitment to local arts projects last fall, the Kresge Foundation has awarded annual fellowships to artists since 2009, and Red Bull opened its first domestic House of Art, an emerging-artist incubator, here in May 2012.

Artists have been coming to Detroit for lower rents in studio spaces carved out of converted warehouses and storefronts for a while. One of the newer galleries showing these artists is the Library Street Collective (LSC), located in the heart of the downtown district.  

Opened three years ago by two couples — Anthony and J.J. Curis, and Matt and Ania Eaton — LSC has been curating exhibits that give the spotlight to local, national, and international artists. “Art should never be thought of in any way but globally,” Matt explains. “If you aren’t a part of the greater conversation, no one hears your voice. So we bring artists to Detroit to meet the community. And we help introduce Detroit’s artists to the world.”

A relationship with Luciano Benetton (yes, that Benetton) has helped the cause. LSC was hired to curate the North American section of an exhibit sponsored by Benetton, in Venice, called the Small Works Project. The exhibit featured 5×4 canvases produced by 120 artists, three-quarters of whom were from Detroit.

They’ve also done their part to bring top-tier international talent to Detroit. When Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert built a large mixed-use parking structure downtown, the Eatons and Curises pitched the idea of painting murals on the barren walls of the 10-story garage. The result is one of the most stunning examples of international artistic collaboration and urban narrative in public art today. This is not your average parking garage. Each floor is adorned with the murals, mostly 130 by 14 feet, created by 27 artists from 14 countries. If you visit Detroit, park here. You won’t regret it.

Like any business, LSC needs to make money. Curating shows is one way. And though the collector market in Detroit isn’t as robust as New York’s, exhibit sales have been strong. “If your customers understand that you truly believe in your product, it is much easier to sell,” asserts Matt.  

New York and other major cities around the country have been the magnets behind Detroit’s brain drain, which has seen young, college-educated men and women leaving Michigan in droves for opportunities elsewhere. Many of them are talented, creative minds craving the artistic opportunities galleries such as LSC want to create. “New York is filled with well trained creative minds that come from other cities like Detroit. Giving those people a reason to stay here is key. Finding ways to retain these creatives is vital for the future of Detroit,” says Matt.

He’s right. Detroit can only rebound if it can regrow its population and tax base, and a thriving cultural economy is critical to that end. Even if you’re not an aspiring artist, a diverse cultural landscape is as essential a piece of the puzzle as the restaurants, bars, and nightlife that young talent considers when choosing a city.

Eaton and the rest of the LSC teams are optimistic. They’re off to Dubai to rep Detroit artists as consultants on a large-scale public art project. Their next show will feature Brooklyn-based artist Sam Friedman. Anthony smiles and says it will be “big fun — an abstract color explosion.”

Spring is starting to show itself in Detroit. There are more people walking outside, and Matt looks ready to deliver a prophetic summary of everything we’ve been talking about. “We definitely work hard to change the perception of Detroit and the downtown area. There is life here, there are people living and loving. There are birds singing. It’s a beautiful city.”

See, he didn’t disappoint.