Detroit evokes particularly vivid scenes in the collective imagination. The ornate skyscrapers of the Gilded Age, the Art Deco icons of Motor City, the jubilant ballads of Motown, secret techno parties and J Dilla’s beats. And now, thanks to director Kathryn Bigelow’s latest movie, Detroit, as well as other anniversary events, the 1967 riot’s spirit of revolt is alive again.
The urban landscape is heavy with the traces of the rise and fall of a quintessential industrial capital. Now as new initiatives transform areas from Downtown to the Eastern Market, Detroit is changing again, with luxury brands rushing to cater to a financial and tech elite, and artists and activists launching community projects.
These two worlds came together last month at a cocktail reception in an upscale residential area on the banks of Lake St Clair. There, Anthony and JJ Curis, the young couple running the downtown Detroit gallery Library Street Collective, have renovated the Hawkins Ferry House, a Modernist masterpiece by William Kessler, and filled it with the hottest names of contemporary art for an auction benefiting the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (Mocad).
As guests in Thom Browne suits and Margiela dresses lined up for spring rolls and pork buns prepared by the pop-up restaurant, Flowers of Vietnam, they placed bids on iPads for works by Sanford Biggers, Agathe Snow and local artists Tiff Massey and Greg Fadell. The band Valley Hush played dreamy pop tunes as the sun set over the manicured garden.
The next days were filled with more festivities. After a tour of the Mocad’s ‘99 Cents’ exhibition featuring art-world heavyweights Alex Israel, John Baldessari and Laurie Simmons, as well as several local artists such as Shaina Kazstelan, we moved to the museum’s vast industrial events space to savour Katoi’s northern Thai-inspired cuisine and cocktails.
Painter Paul Kremer, who travelled from Houston for the party, explored the city’s art and music scenes with visiting artists Katherine Bernhardt and Spencer Sweeney. They gathered at artist Scott Reeder’s 10,000 sq. foot studio in a former auto storage space to relax, paint ceramics, and, later, dance to the soul and funk vinyl set of local DJs (Reeder is married to Mocad director Elysia Borowy-Reeder; the couple lives in a Mies Van Der Rohe-designed building downtown).
Yet more art was on display in the redesigned Downtown area and its historic landmarks, where The Library Street Collective has curated a selection of works by Kaws, Shepard Fairey, Swoon, Willie Wayne Smith, Nina Chanel Abney, Massey, and Kremer. A 4600 sq. foot skate park by artist Ryan McGuinness and skating legend Tony Hawk will be revealed later this month. These works are funded and curated by a group of stakeholders, including Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who has bought and renovated over 100 buildings in the city.
Now these shifting dynamics are sparking new conversations around equal representation in a rapidly gentrifying city. “The urgency now is to preserve the narratives of Detroiters,” explained Tiff Massey, who creates oversized jewellery and metallic sculptures in her home studio. “Because there seems to be a lot of whitewashing over what is really happening here and what this city needs to function. We need new initiatives, but we also need to fix existing infrastructures. It’s important to have alternative art spaces all over the city because often people don’t feel that they can have access to institutions to create a more vibrant place to live that is for everyone. It’s time to really think about who controls the city’s narrative.”