by Mike Gallagher for the CMF Newswire – Found on

The vision for a new Detroit is growing and exciting work is going on behind the scenes to position the city for an unprecedented revival of its once-renowned status as an inner-city arts mecca.

Leaders from around the Motor City are trying to shake off the shackles of a troubled economy, high unemployment and reduced tax base and services as they seek new ways to revitalize Detroit and its environs now and in the future, say city, community and foundation leaders.

Several new ideas for achieving that goal centered around the arts and innovative architectural design during a presentation to foundation leaders at this week’s Detroit Area Grantmakers’ (DAG) meeting.

Laura Trudeau, senior program director for The Kresge Foundation, moderated the event entitled: “The Next Generation of Creative Leadership in Detroit.”

Calling the effort “our secret weapon” in moving Detroit forward and repositioning it from a rusty manufacturing hub to a vibrant, 21st century locale, Trudeau says the movement will help attract the new generation through offerings of art, music, theatre and festivals.

“What is happening in Detroit in the arts is exciting…and we are looking for ways to connect the philanthropic community to this effort,” notes Trudeau.

Noting current funding from foundations – including the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan and nonprofits such as New Detroit Inc. – to help spur Detroit’s economic renaissance, Trudeau says the grants are having a positive impact as the city looks for new ways to ensure economic and social equity.


New Efforts To Revitalize Detroit


Three Detroit-based arts officials gave highlights of their respective projects, ideas and goals at DAG.

Luis Croquer, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), says the mission of the museum is to present art at the forefront of city’s contemporary culture.

“As a non-collecting institution, MOCAD is responsive to the cultural content of our time, fueling crucial dialogue, collaboration and public engagement,” says Croquer.

Located between the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies, MOCAD “is an innovative addition to Detroit’s Cultural Center and functions as a hub for the exploration of emerging ideas in the contemporary arts,” he says.

The 22,000-square-foot building is a former auto dealership and has been renovated to maintain its historic character. “With its raw, flexible and cavernous spaces, the building is well suited to the exhibition of contemporary art.”

MOCAD’s first exhibition opened in October 2006 and immediately gained national attention as renowned curator Klaus Kertess, whose Bykert Gallery launched the careers of such contemporary masters as Chuck Close and Brice Marden in the late ’70s and who curated the Whitney Biennial in the ’90s, included works from nine artists.

Several exhibitions later, MOCAD is earning positive acclaim around the U.S. – from both the media and art connoisseurs – and is preparing to stretch its wings even further.

“MOCAD offers a space, touring exhibitions and a collection that is exciting, riveting and unique and will serve as a portal to both the national and international arts communities as we continue to grow and expand our efforts while also promoting Detroit artists and their works,” notes Croquer.

Noting the ongoing effort in the Motor City, Croquer adds, “A lot of people see Detroit as an impediment to our ongoing development, but I view it as a wonderful opportunity. This city holds so much promise for the arts…and we can regain and surpass our reputation as a world-class, inner-city arts center.”


Sugar Hill Resurgence


In another effort to promote Detroit’s art offerings, George N’Namdi, founder of the N’Namdi Gallery and a representative of Detroit’s Sugar Hill Arts District, told foundation leaders he and his wife came to the city in the 1970s to start an arts school and later a gallery to exhibit those works.

Detailing the history of the Sugar Hill Arts District, N’Namdi recalls how the area was once a social center in the 1930s through the 1960s featuring many clubs, restaurants, hotels and galleries.

With the deterioration of the area – and the city – over the next 40+ years, N’Namdi is now one of the leaders working to restore “the greatness of this priceless area and then use it to spark other development throughout Detroit.

“We have many projects in the works right now for Sugar Hill and that includes creating an outdoor performance space for the community, office space, new galleries, a mid-block walkway and protection and restoration of a local church that was once part of Detroit’s underground railroad,” he says.

“I view the Sugar Hill Arts District as a pivotal area for the City of Detroit,” remarks N’Namdi. “It has incredible potential to bring in national and international tourism to Detroit.”

Currently the district boasts a growing – and soon-to-be-designated nonprofit – arts center that provides exhibit space, an indoor performance center, bookstore and much more.

Highlights include:

  • more than 70,000 visitors since November 2008
  • 5 major shows hosted between 2006-‘08
  • more than 200 public programs hosted or co-sponsored, including film screenings, special events, panel discussions and special guest lectures
  • more than 35 interns with affiliations ranging from Wayne State University, College of Creative Studies, University of Michigan, Oakland University, Boston College, Grand Valley State University and Henry Ford Academy
  • 150 volunteers assisting with installations, programming and special events

“Another thing we’re working on is bringing to Detroit the first full-service vegetarian restaurant that will include a full wine bar,” adds N’Namdi.

Sustainable energy use is also a key component of the Sugar Hill effort, he notes.

“We also believe geo-thermal is the way to go and we also will be constructing a geo-thermal fueled art garden in front of the VA Hospital,” says N’Namdi. “I have always thought that a creative model needs a business model to exist and we are combining the two to make Sugar Hill a success.”

Mitch Cope, a Detroit-based artist, and his wife Gina Reichert and architect wrapped up the DAG presentation by highlighting the work of Design 99 and the Power House Project.

“We offer anyone complete redesign plans for their home or business for $99,” says Cope. “We bring in designers and artists to showcase their work, because you can’t do anything alone in Detroit.”

The Power House Project, notes Reichert, is an architectural experiment to create a prototype model home using a currently abandoned house in Detroit and reconstruct it to use all renewable energy. “We then want to use it as an exhibition space,” she says.

Based in Hamtramck (a Detroit suburb), the couple say they want Power House to be truly affordable, secure and sustainable for under $99,000.

“If we can succeed with this plan, we then want to attract artists to the Motor City from around the country and that can happen as word of all of our successes to recapture the greatness of Detroit comes to fruition,” he says.

Cope and Reichert are already seeing success.

For example, after hearing about the stories, plans and promise of Detroit from the couple, friends of theirs from Chicago – artists Jon and Sara Brumit – decided the Motor City was the place to be and after spending a day searching, purchased a house on the eastside for $100.

“Admittedly the $100 house needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced but we plan on eventually connecting their house to our mini-green grid to save them money,” says Cope.

“There are $100 houses available along with those in the $1,000 to $5,000 price range that certainly need fixing up, but they are affordable…and we hope to attract even more artists to Detroit once we spread the word about these kind of housing deals. We want to build this city back up block by block and the arts community is a terrific place to draw these kinds of innovative and farsighted people,” he added.