Detroit is often reduced to a microcosmic allegory for the great American decline, but the gold rush of a new American frontier could be a closer analogy, thanks to the tide of scoop-hungry journalists washing up in the city. Accounts of dilapidated $100 houses, arson, poverty porn and a violent crime rate five times the national average are balanced by reports of the city as a creative cradle for urban farms, graffiti prodigies, artists and rappers with the same DIY ethos and talent that birthed Motown and techno (not to mention Madonna, Eminem and er… Insane Clown Posse).
It’s true that there is a trove of ruin porn in Detroit, from the sad shells of burnt-out houses and overgrown lots to Urbex pin-ups such as the old central train station and the 40-acre Packard Plant. On my first visit to Metro Detroit in 2013 I was led through the sprawling factory carcass, careful not to tread too long on sagging, water-pooled ceiling tiles, rotten wood and hunks of reinforced concrete… when in Rome, I thought. It’s one of the 78,000 or so abandoned structures that attract fellow lurkers, graffiti artists and scrappers to the city. Before my visit all I expected to see was an ailing city, a derelict spectropolis. Then we drove past the new branch of Whole Foods.
The home of Detroit’s world-class art collection rises behind Rodin’s prostrate bronze thinker in a majestic Beaux-Arts style building in midtown and receives at least 400,000 visitors per year (many of whom travel to see Diego Rivera’s masterpiece, the world-renowned “Detroit Industry Mural”). It was also one of the first American museums to buy paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse, and wandering through today’s collection is still one of the greatest treats in the city. Christie’s recent report estimated the value of almost 3,000 city-owned artworks at between $454 and $867 million, barely scratching the estimated $18bn owed to the city’s creditors, yet the threat to sell the public works still hangs over the museum. Neighbouring MOCAD has existed as a non-profit institution since 2006 to showcase preeminent contemporary art, and it is flanked by Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, a public art project and memorial to one of Detroit’s most esteemed sons. Out in the affluent suburb of Bloomfield Hills sits Cranbrook Art Museum and Academy of Arts, part of the Cranbrook Educational Community, a cultural bastion sprawled over 300 acres.
These are some of Detroit’s more visible creative institutions but the bounty of cheap space, salvageable resources and determined optimism sustain the flurry of experimental spaces and art cooperatives in and around Hamtramck (Public Pool, Popps Packing, 2739 Edwin) or out of North End Studios or the Russell Industrial Center complex. One of the better-known examples of repurposed property is East Detroit’s Heidelberg project, a street of houses decorated in the salvaged debris of other blighted homes by artist-activist Tyree Guyton. They’ve stood since 1986 but the faded primary colours and toy-adorned facades still looked garish under cold white light as I drove past in December. The project has faced arson – eight counts in 2013 alone – and mayoral opposition, but it is still a symbol of local pride and resilience. Hamtramck Disneyland and the African Bead Museum are similarly impressive visual protests to decay, making use of provincial resources. They are also emblematic of the tendency for Detroit arts spaces to be non-commercial and insular.
In contrast, What Pipeline Gallery is remarkable for its outward focus. The year-old space is run by Alivia Zivich and Daniel Sperry, who are intent on contributing to the discourse of a globalised art world by showing reputable international work at the space on Vernor Highway and exhibiting countrywide at art fairs – including the inaugural Paramount Ranch, located, fittingly, in a deserted Hollywood western ghost town film set. Previous exhibitions at What Pipeline have included a retrospective of Detroit native Mary Ann Aitken, collaborative work from Lucie Stahl and Tom Humphreys, a group show and most recently “Janitoria”, collaborative works from Marte Eknæs and Nicolau Vergueiro. Collaboration and network fortification are the backbone of What Pipeline: the Aitken retrospective was presented in tandem with local gallery and café Trinosophes while Janitoria overlapped with Perpendicular Picture, a solo show of Eknæs’ work at Susanne Hilberry Gallery. Other commercial spaces include The Butcher’s Daughter on Cass Avenue and the soon-to-be-opened expansion of Michael Jon Gallery (of Miami).
In order to support this kind of shift in focus Detroit needs more of the rooted collector base, patrons and institutions supplied by its illustrious past. The city is (or has been) home to internationally renowned patron families like the Taubmans and Frankels and Gilbert and Lila Silverman, who built up (and subsequently donated to MoMA in 2008) a significant archive of Fluxus material. Their granddaughter Jessica is now a San Francisco gallerist.
What Pipeline’s Daniel Sperry told me he doesn’t believe there is any one solution to Detroit’s miles of abandoned property, racial segregation, crime and poverty. And yet, he’s sanguine about the city’s future: “There is a lot of change, maybe it’s just being partially more involved that I’m a little more optimistic about being here; about other people filling in the spaces, talking about different things and co-mingling.” It may not be the next Berlin – the comparisons are out there – or any other kind of creative utopia yet, but Detroit’s young wave of galleries and project spaces definitely deserve a heavy international eyeballing of their own.
Text by Ella Plevin