THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by K.A. Letts
The city of Detroit is awash in public art. From the Calder, Rodin and Arp sculptures that ring the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) to the Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum on Grand River to the contemporary, graffiti-inflected murals in Eastern Market, public artworks are strewn across the city like so much confetti after a ticker tape parade. How can it be that a city facing financial challenges, having only recently emerged from bankruptcy, publicly hosts such a vast and ever-increasing variety of visual media?
My guess is that the answer lies in the historic openness of Detroit’s people to diverse means of expression and their libertarian attitude when it comes to raising money for the arts. It seems anyone who can scrape together a few dollars (or even no dollars) and can find a willing artist—of which there is no shortage—can dip their aesthetic oar into the cultural river of Detroit’s ongoing visual narrative.
It has always been thus: the handsome 1903 bronze statue of Hazen Stuart Pingree, 4-time governor of Michigan, twice Mayor of Detroit (and a populist back when that was a good thing) was gifted to the city by voluntary donations from the citizens of Michigan. By telling contrast, the lovely 1925 James Scott Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle, commemorating a rascally and unpopular real estate developer, was donated by… himself.
Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry Murals (detail), 1932–33. Detroit Institute of Arts.
Public art in Detroit throughout its early growth during the 19th and early 20th century was typical of its time: representational images of the rich and notable, with women represented only in allegory and ethnic minorities seldom or not at all. All of that changed in 1932 with the arrival in Detroit of Mexican artist Diego Rivera. With funding from Edsel Ford, the Marxist muralist was commissioned to paint a vast, 27-panel fresco extolling America’s manufacturing in general and the auto industry in particular.
Ford got his money’s worth: the Detroit Industry Murals, which are still on permanent display at the DIA, are generally acknowledged to be some of Rivera’s most successful public art works. The mural cycle celebrated the heroic worker; suddenly an ethnically diverse group of factory laborers was front and center, expressing the dynamism and energy of the common man (Unfortunately, Rivera’s depiction of assembly line workers was more aspirational than descriptive—during the time he worked on the mural, the factory population was exclusively white.)
Large female figures ranging around the upper registers of the composition are allegorical, as usual, but a few actual working women are represented in a couple of small side panels, in their jobs as upholsterers and laboratory assistants. The murals were well received by the public upon completion and remain broadly popular, though the irony of a public artwork painted by a communist at the behest of a capitalist also remains apparent.
The 1940s and 1950s were a time of peak prosperity for Detroit. The public art of the time reflects that confidence and optimism. Abundant factory jobs attracted a vast new population, many of them African Americans from the south looking for economic and social opportunity. By 1960, the city was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States. A constantly rising standard of living allowed the city’s leaders to ignore festering issues of social justice within the minority population.
It was during this period of affluence and security that one of Detroit’s best-known images was commissioned. In 1955, the 26-foot Spirit of Detroit was commissioned to be created by a locally prominent sculptor, Marshall Fredericks. At the time, it was the biggest bronze statue to be cast since the Renaissance. Created in a muscular post-art deco style, the green patinaed male figure seems to float. It holds a gilt bronze sphere representing a deity in one hand and a family group representing humanity in the other. The Spirit of Detroit, in this idealized telling, represents a city that has come into its own—exuberant, idealistic and forward-thinking.
Detroit’s golden age subsided during the ‘60s and ‘70s into a period of diminished economic opportunity, as the great auto factories began to leave the city for open tracts of land outside its borders, taking their tax revenues with them. White flight and disinvestment exacerbated the municipality’s structural problems.
In spite of the tightening local economy and Detroit’s growing socio-political troubles, Detroit’s then-mayor, Coleman Young, managed to get the Detroit People Mover built and operating during the 1980s. The unfairly reviled rail line was meant to be the beginning of a large regional transit system, which never materialized due to waning federal interest in mass transit. But in a rare instance when Detroit actually funded its art through government, distinguished public artworks were commissioned and installed in all the line’s stations. At each of the thirteen stops, artists with national reputations, such as Joyce Kozloff and Gerome Kamrowski were represented, along with impressive local talents like Charles McGee and Tom Phardel. The People Mover is still in operation and offers a free tour of significant contemporary art to its riders for the price of a 75-cent ticket.
Paradoxically, as Detroit’s troubles deepened, public art continued to be produced at a healthy clip. Between 1980 and 2011, when Detroit declared bankruptcy, major public landmarks like Monument to Joe Louis (better known as The Fist) by Robert Graham, the International Memorial to the Underground Railroad by Ed Dwight and Detroit Deliquescence by John Chamberlain continued to tell the city’s story, now in a defiant minor key.
Proving once again that the more things change, the more they stay the same, the post-bankruptcy public art scene in Detroit continues to mutate and grow. Individual and foundation funding for public art is robust. At the very top, corporate donors Jennifer and Dan Gilbert, Detroit’s Medicis, continually fund a dizzying variety of public art works and art spaces. The public arts strategy of the Gilberts seems to be motivated by a combination of civic pride and savvy leveraging of public art to support their redevelopment of downtown real estate.
Gerome Kamrowski, Voyage, Venetian Glass Mural, 1987, Detroit People Mover Joe Louis Arena Station.
In cooperation with the Library Street Collective, a downtown art space specializing in graffiti artists, the Gilberts, through their real estate company, Bedrock Detroit, commissioned The Belt, a once-derelict alley that has been redeveloped into a 24-hour outdoor art gallery. With works by Tiff Massey, Faile, Vhils and Nina Chanel Abney, The Belt is a favorite destination for photo shoots by fashion and wedding photographers and seems to be crowded at all hours of the day and night, weather permitting. Next door, The Z, a 10-story Bedrock-owned parking structure, features walls covered inside and out with murals painted by a global roster of 27 graffiti artists. Most recently, a pop-up gallery adjacent to The Belt has opened, dedicated to showcasing the work of Cranbrook Art Academy graduates who have elected to remain in Detroit to live and work.
A recent public art trend in post-bankruptcy Detroit is the introduction of experiential, time-based art events. A good example is the Kresge Foundation-funded DLECTRICITY, a two-day festival of contemporary public art featuring large scale video and still projections that illuminated a mile-long stretch near the DIA in the fall of 2017. Once again, the Gilberts have been in the forefront of this movement. In collaboration with Library Street Collective, they recently commissioned The Beach Detroit, an interactive public art installation created by the New York design firm Snarkitecture and installed only last month, for a limited time, in a Bedrock-owned building on Woodward Avenue.
It isn’t, of course, a beach. Visitors are invited to enter and explore the surreal seascape, an all-white ocean of plastic balls, punctuated by visual cues suggesting the seaside: deck chairs, umbrellas and lifeguard stations, though there’s no sand or water.
WC Bevan, Eggsploitation, 2017, Murals in the Market.
Public art is bubbling up from the grass roots too. Like many cities recovering from urban decay, Detroit is a hotbed of activity for muralists. One of Detroit’s most prolific and visible street artists, WC Bevan, describes his entry into the public art scene here as an organic process that began with painting a few murals for free. “I painted three murals before I got paid for any of them,” he says. “The first one was at the Lincoln Street Art Park. [But] True Meridian was the money spot because of the location.” Bevan had noticed that Megan McConnell, the proprietor of Salt & Cedar Letterpress, had painted a large, highly visible wall white. “I noticed it was there and I reached out and said ‘Hey, that’s a really great wall and I’d be interested in painting it and I have 88 cans of black paint…’ We came up with the concept of True Meridian which was just a fun thing to paint. Eastern Market bought us a lift and I got to work… After that, things started happening. For the past two years I’ve been living off my art.”
Bevan and his fellow muralists have made their peace with the city, which initially had been hostile to paintings on public walls, being unable, apparently, to distinguish between commissioned works of art and blight. Building owners who had given permission to artists—or even paid them—to paint on their buildings often found they had been ticketed for creating a civic eyesore. The ill-conceived arrest and prosecution of internationally known street artist Shepard Fairey for unauthorized tagging brought some unwelcome attention to Detroit, and the city (having now concluded that it should join what it can’t beat) has inaugurated the Blight Abatement Artist Residency program to commission murals for spots that are frequent targets of illegal graffiti. Bevan expects to execute murals for the program this summer.
When asked to name his favorite work of public art in Detroit, Bevan chose Hamtramck Disneyland, a recent addition to the thriving genre of public outsider art in the city. This teetering, two-story assemblage of hand-carved and found objects, spanning two back yards in the Hamtramck neighborhood, had been under construction for over 30 years by a retired Ukrainian auto worker, Dmytro Szylak. Upon his death in 2015, the site was acquired by Hatch Art, a nearby arts non-profit. The folk-art landmark is under renovation and recently began operating an artists’ residency on the site.
Cass Gilbert and Herbert Adams, James Scott Memorial Fountain, 1925. Belle Isle Park, Detroit, Michigan.
As befits a city in flux, Detroit’s public art right now is more provisional, entrepreneurial and ephemeral than it has been in more turbulent times, leaving room for alternative voices and methods. The city has always told its story collaboratively, and the job, going forward, is to decide collectively what to remember and what to forget as the city continues to change.
K.A. Letts is a working artist (kalettsart.com) and art blogger (rustbeltarts.com). She has shown her paintings and drawings in galleries and museums in Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and New York. She writes frequently about art in the Detroit area.
Marshall Fredericks, Spirit of Detroit, 1958.
Joyce Kozloff, Ceramic wall mural detail, 1987, Financial Station, Detroit People Mover.
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