Arts and Culture in Detroit: Central to Our Past and Our Future


Rip Rapson, Kresge Foundation

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Volume 10, Issue 2 | December 13, 2014

No community in America, except perhaps for those in the paths of natural disasters,
has faced the prospect of losing so much of its arts and cultural heritage
as Detroit has in the last 18 months. The threatened sell-off of the collection
at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to satisfy creditors in the city’s municipal
bankruptcy has served as a symbol of the painful path of restructuring.

The Kresge Foundation and other philanthropies responded to the dual prospect of lost
art and draconian reductions in benefits to pensioners. Partnering with the State of Michigan
and the DIA itself, the philanthropies contributed to an $816 million fund to transfer the
DIA collection to a nonprofit entity outside city control and dramatically reduce the cuts
pensioners would have to suffer. Without this “grand bargain,” the bankruptcy process very
likely would have embroiled the city for a decade, as pensioners invoked Michigan’s constitution’s
protection of pensions and creditors and the DIA litigated whose rights to the art
would be primary.

The imperative to deal honorably with pensioners was clear. Equally clear, however, was
the need to protect and preserve an integral part of the city’s cultural patrimony, an institution
that has served as a beacon for residents and visitors alike—an institution that has
anchored Detroiters’ sense of identity and connection to their community. Compromising
such a civic treasure would have diminished the city in unfathomable ways.

That the philanthropic, public, and cultural communities stepped forward to prevent
this misfortune speaks volumes about the value Detroit places on arts and culture. Their
actions also are an invitation to explore the burgeoning vibrancy of other dimensions of the
city’s cultural ecology.

Detroit is among the countless cities across America continuing to reap the benefits of
Rocco Landesman’s extraordinary 2009–2012 tenure at the helm of the National Endowment
for the Arts (NEA). Landesman committed the NEA to the proposition that arts and
culture can restore and animate our communities. Further, he sought to institutionalize this
commitment by bringing together the Kresge and Ford foundations to spearhead the creation
of ArtPlace America, a philanthropic consortium committed to creative placemaking.

The idea of placemaking has long been a staple of urban planning—the act of creating
the map of civic life by developing distinctive, livable places. Landesman proposed that by
connecting arts and culture to placemaking, their roles in contributing to the social, physical,
cultural, and economic identities of a community can be recognized. He suggested that arts
and culture have to step inside the fence-line of community development and claim their places in the diverse terrain of land use, housing, transportation, environment, health and
other systems necessary to create stronger, more vibrant places.

Detroit is increasingly enlivened by such thinking. Philanthropies, nonprofit organizations,
private entities, and government are all pursuing mutually reinforcing strategies. The
lineup of partners may vary from project to project, but the principles remain the same.

Consider the more than 160 arts organizations located in the city. The major institutions—
the DIA, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, College for Creative Studies, Michigan Opera
Theatre, Charles Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit Historical Museum,
and others. There is no shortage of small-, medium-, and large-sized organizations, projects,
and activities touching the lives and daily routines of thousands of city residents. Just a
handful of examples are illustrative:

  • Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit recently moved into the same building as University
    Prep Math and Science Elementary School. The youth theater can now integrate arts
    and culture into the school’s curriculum and provide new cultural activities for the
    surrounding neighborhood.
  • Festivals and celebrations—among them the Detroit Design Festival (the design arts),
    DLECTRICITY (light and contemporary art installations), and Art X Detroit (showcasing
    the work of Kresge Artist Fellows and Eminent Artists)—regularly attract thousands
    of people to Midtown Detroit to participate in installations, workshops, shows,
    studio tours, lectures, and block parties.
  • The community+public arts: DETROIT program draws on community engagement,
    large-scale public art, urban planning, and green infrastructure to transform vacant
    and underused spaces in multiple Detroit neighborhoods.
  • The REVOLVE Livernois initiative created 30 temporary and permanent art installations
    and pop-up activities along a stretch of Livernois Avenue, historically known as
    Detroit’s “Avenue of Fashion.” It has been expanded with grants from Kresge and the
    NEA’s Our Town program to five additional corridors (for more on the NEA’s Our
    Town program, see Chu and Schupbach in this issue).
  • Intersections, an arts-infused pocket park project, has engaged the North Corktown
    business and residential community in redeveloping contiguous vacant lots at one of
    the neighborhood’s key intersections.
  • Power House Productions reclaims vacant land and houses purchased for as little as $100
    in Banglatown (named for the multiple generations of Bangladeshi immigrants) and
    gives the properties new lives as power generators (wind and solar), cultural spaces,
    artistic installations, and community centers.
  • Through the Alley Project, Young Nation has transformed an alley in Southwest Detroit
    into a permanent outdoor exhibition space dedicated to aerosol paint street art by
    local artists and youth. The project is shaped by a design process that continuously
    engages neighborhood residents.

Artists are standing at the heart of this ecosystem. Those who have resided in the city for
many years have been joined by new arrivals. Together they are helping the city creatively
reimagine the arc of its aspirations. The newcomers are attracted to the city by what some
have termed “Rust Belt chic:” the possibility of buying a house for $1,000 or renting for a
pittance; working unconstrained by bureaucracy to carve out unexpected uses in unexpected
places; converting the public ruins of factories and warehouses into studio and exhibition
spaces; and the opportunity to experience community vibrancy, street life, and cultural identity.

All these efforts entail some degree of risk and a willingness to see potential where others
have not. Rebuilding a city requires not just the spirit to try something new; it also requires a
common sense of purpose. Detroit is fortunate to possess both of these qualities. In fact, city
residents spent more than two years coming together to establish parameters for the city’s
transformation and to identify pathways to better opportunity for all Detroiters, captured in
a framework for action called “Detroit Future City.”1

Since its completion, Detroit Future City has become the guide for all of Kresge’s investments
in the city and has entered the fabric of municipal and regional planning. It draws
from the input of thousands of Detroiters to define quality of life and affirm that safety,
health, prosperity, housing, and public services are among the essential building blocks of an
economically viable, socially cohesive city.

Detroit should approach its challenges with unprecedented ambition. It will have to be
smart—challenging preconceptions about what a city is supposed to look like and how it
works. It will have to be bold—pursuing ideas that will strike some as outlandish and others
as foolish. It will also have to be unflinching in its courage—bracing against forces that will
not welcome such sweeping change. Anything less won’t be enough.

Artists in Detroit are uniquely suited to help meet these challenges. They are instrumental
in helping us see connections among the past, the present, and the future. They embody,
embrace, and express the soul of the place. And they are fully engaged in creative placemaking—
contributing tangibly and powerfully to energizing and animating our neighborhoods.

1. For more on the Detroit Future City framework, see

Rip Rapson is president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, a $3 billion national, private foundation
based in metropolitan Detroit. Rapson came to Kresge in 2006 and led the philanthropy in a multiyear
transition to expand and recalibrate its grantmaking. Strategically focused programs emerged: arts
and culture, education, environment, health, human services and community development in Detroit,
Kresge’s hometown. Each seeks to expand opportunities in America’s cities so that vulnerable people can
lead self-determined lives and join the economic mainstream. Rapson serves as chairman of the ArtPlace
Presidents Council and sits on the boards of Living Cities, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, the
Downtown Detroit Partnership, M-1 Rail, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation of New York. He
earned a law degree from Columbia University.