Detroit is Not Your Blank Canvas

The rise of art as a means of revitalizing Detroit has become an exciting and controversial topic. I myself have been fairly skeptical and often view “art projects” with a certain about of disdain for their naivete and lack of real impact. Young gentrifiers and artists have called for Detroit to offer them more opportunities and good paying jobs, others have been drawn to the idea of “making” art in Detroit’s emptiness, and some artists have focused on Detroit as a place for only charity.

One well known example of art helping Detroit is the Heidelberg Project, which recently celebrated 25 years. The local artist who launched the project with his Grandfather is well known for taking vacant and litter-filled lots and turning them into “lots of art.” He has made his Eastside neighborhood more attractive with a mission to give young people a different vision of their neighborhoods and Detroit’s blight. Since the project began in it has faced demolition from the city and funding troubles. In 2011, the Center for Creative Community Development (C3D) conducted an economic impact study on the Hiedelberg project. The study found that:

[…] based on the nonprofit Heidelberg Project’s annual budget of $400,000 and an average 50,000 visitors per year, the annual economic impact in Wayne County is about $3.4 million. The exhibit also has led the creation of an estimated 40 jobs […]. The local economic impact — in areas of Detroit around Heidelberg — is about $2.8 million.

I have to be honest, I didn’t imagine that a neighborhood of art made from found objects could have had any impact bigger than the houses that it occupied. The Heidelberg Project is now in the process of building an art center to house the non-profit, its workshops, and other creative events. If anything the Heidelberg Project has shown that art can revitalize a community from the bottom-up.

However, there haven’t been any art projects that I have seen mirroring the example of the Heidelberg Project (have you? let me know in the comments). Most come from the outside; new arrivals to Detroit planning to make a mark on the “barren” city through art. The problem is that revitalizing Detroit needs more rooted efforts, art doesn’t always lead to economic impact, Detroit isn’t empty, and charity alone won’t solve the problems.

What about beautifying neighborhoods, painting houses that people do live in, or supporting community arts education programs?

The Allure of Revitalizing Detroit

Detroit has become a new kind of mecca for young people who want to make a difference and turn Michigan’s economy around. It has become “cool” to move to Detroit and work for a non-profit or other organization. This is all well and good and exciting, as long as young people who move to Detroit recognize that Detroit isn’t just about “saving” and doing whatever you want. There is a common misconception that Detroit is an empty landscape based on all the epic pictures dilapidated buildings taken by budding photographers, while the city has a lot of vacant properties and empty buildings downtown, the city is not empty or devoid of people. The people who remain in the city need to be engaged, included, and consulted on any project – citywide or neighborhood-based.

This often brings in the G-word: gentrification. I have written about my experiences living in Detroit, considering if I was a gentrifier, and calling for greater understanding of the city’s racial history and the privilege that many young artists bring into Detroit. Recently, Huffington Post Detroit, published a long article by Tommy Simon who wrote as a “young gentrifier” struggling to get by, but failed to realize that there is a large population in Detroit that has been struggling for much longer. He called for a stronger creative economy in Detroit that could provide senior level jobs for himself and his friends by noting that other young gentrifiers in other cities don’t have it this bad.

“Because I grew up in the suburbs and was mystified by the allure of being a part of the revitalization of Detroit. […] And while I hope I do not have to argue the importance of a city providing employment, I will clarify that I am not simply talking about any job, but a job that allows a young person like myself to put my education and creativity to good use.”

To me this represents the disconnect between wanting to revitalize Detroit and understanding that it isn’t a simple creative endeavor. In the name of “revitalization” artists can’t overlook existing efforts or forget to engage a neighborhood community. An excellent example of this is the fight over an “art house” in North Corktown.

“The art house people didn’t buy it, pay taxes, or intend to live in it,” said Samul. “They were just going to use it to play in.”

Often what the “Detroit is empty” misconception means for “art” is a disregard for existing Detroit efforts and communities in the name of revitalization. In this case the art house was framed as gentrification, but in the end the “art house” best represented the failure of art to connect to community. For any artists, this should be a lesson in talking to key community stakeholders before getting creative.

Art = Employment?

The Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3) is working on incubating and developing a creative economy in Detroit. In recent years there has been an upswing of art centers in Detroit from College for Creative Studies and the School for Creative Studies to MOCAD and Art Detroit Now  to the Detroit Design Festival (DDF) and Arts Corps Detroit, along with a long list of Detroit creative endeavors that have made art an important aspect of Detroit’s growth and image. The Knight Foundation released its list of grant winners of initiatives in Detroit that are “advancing contemporary life.” Among them were 2 groups working to advance the creative side of Detroit’s recovery, LOVELAND Technologies and the Mt. Elliot Makerspace.

But, does art and creative investment really drive jobs and economic growth?

For each dollar the state of Michigan spends on arts and culture, $51 goes back into the state economy. In Detroit alone, the 28 organizations included had total direct expenditures of more than $127 million and employed 2,657 staff. (source: about Report from ArtServe Michigan)

Art and the creative sector can no longer be ignored when talking about Detroit’s future growth. The impacts that have been measured thus far show that through programs like the Heidelberg Project the city and sometimes neighborhoods benefit from art.

“Vibrancy is probably the best proxy we have for the quality of place,” Coletta says. “Quality of place is essential for attracting and retaining human capital. And human capital is essential to the economic well-being of communities.” (source)

Art can no longer be ignored as an economic impactor, but if art can build vibrancy and revive communities it begs the question: for whom does art revive communities? For gentrifiers? For suburban weekend visitors? For the 1 million tourists who come to Detroit?

Artists need to consider their privilege, communities need to be engaged by artists interested in revitalizing Detroit, and art projects need to have a more direct impact for Detroit’s neighborhoods.


From my quick and far from extensive research I have found very few instances of art and creativity benefiting Detroiters, neighborhoods, and those in need. One of my other favorite examples of a creative project that has actually impacted the Detroit community is the Empowerment Plan a versatile street coat/ sleeping bag created by a CCS student, Veronika, but developed in close cooperation with Detroit’s homeless population. As the project grew Veronika was able to employ some of the homeless individuals who helped her with the initial ideas.

3 thoughts on “Detroit is Not Your Blank Canvas

  1. @Alex
    Nice post! I think you hit the mark in saying that design (and art) can lead to real jobs and money, the metrics prove it. DC3 came about after the Business League for Michigan did research on what business sectors they thought might be viable in Detroit and design was top in their findings.

    I think you also touched on a point that goes far beyond Detroit in that the design profession tends to be predominantly white. Not having done much research on the matter I suspect there are a number of contributing factors that lead to this — art programs being cut from inner city schools, lack of awareness of what design is in certain communities, art colleges tend to be expensive and don’t offer as many scholarship opportunities etc.

    The organization I volunteer for, AIGA Detroit, runs a youth mentoring program called Shout! to help bridge the gap and introduce design thinking and strategy to students at a younger age so that they might consider it as a profession. When launching the program we received valuable advice from Vernon Lockhart, founder of project osmosis out of Chicago.

    We are by no means the only ones to do something like this. I don’t know much about them but Detroit Future seems to be doing something similar and on a much larger scale:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s