Transitions, Transformations, and Traditions – Artist’s Role in the De-industrial City


Public Address invited Cezanne Charles to guest blog about the conference Rust Belt to Artist Belt. Here is her report. Thanks Cezanne.

From April 6 – 7, Rust Belt to Artist Belt explored how artists and creative practitioners are transforming the landscape in Detroit and in other de-industrialized cities. Topics explored DIY culture, social justice, land use, prosperity and neighborhood and community development. Opening Keynotes from Maria Rosario Jackson of The Urban Institute and Judilee Reed, Executive Director of Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) set the stage for the conference, providing significant national analytics about the position and role of artists in society.

The context for the conference was Detroit and not just the urban center or the image of an American city in decline, which is the popular way this region is depicted. Instead this conference looked at the ways that artists and designers are rethinking and reimagining what is possible for a socially-engaged practice, especially practices that are situated in and suited particularly to the post-industrial context of the multi-centered city/region. The conference also added voices both national and international to the mix.

Creatives Making Their Mark – from left to right Karl Daubmann, Ply Architecture; MonicaBlaire, singer/songwiter; Osman Khan, interactive artist; Lynn Crawford, Author Literary Fiction; (not pictured) Natalie Jeremenjenko, environmental artist. Photo: Cezanne Charles

Detroit has artist community decided micro-funding project grants through Detroit Soup that both weirdly complements and contrasts to The Kresge Artist Fellowship program. The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) and the Heidelberg Project have been awarded funding through LINC’s Space for Change program, while the region also has artists Sarah Wagner and Jon Brumit of DFlux refurbishing their house and offering DIY artist residencies making a different kind of space for creativity. Detroit has an artist run fake guerilla branding agency Hygienic Dress League, the work of Steve and Dorota Coy and top-flight corporate creative agencies such as Skidmore Studios using guerilla tactics. Somewhere in this mix of top down and bottom up approaches artist-led initiatives have found a way to make the region fertile for themselves and other artists and share a connection to artists and creative entrepreneurs in other cities. Detroit has artists and curators working in the public realm making work that moves beyond beautification and cookie-cutter approaches to public art as a hallmark of gentrification and instead illuminates history and traditions such as the Black History 101 Mobile Museum founded by curator Khalid el-Hakim.

Artists in the region like many others have also stepped in to fill needs in the areas of agriculture and urban farming and design as a form of social and economic justice like Margarita Barry and Veronika Scott. They have embraced hacker and media fab labs, like OminiCorp Detroit as a means of addressing digital divide issues; and they are proposing ways to turn homes into environmental assets when property values will likely never provide a return on investment like PowerHouse Productions from Design 99 duo Gina Reichert & Mitch Cope. These were some of the artists’ projects and work that was presented at Rust Belt to Artist Belt as part of a larger context for understanding the full ecosystem or creative supply chain at work in post-industrial or de-industrialized cities.

Rust Belt also attempted to shed some light on what happens when a city becomes the next target for the “Berlin” effect. There are all new issues presented when the superstar curious, the recent transplant, and the native denizens from the core and the suburbs all want to have a say and a stake at the table when promoting or deciding about the future of places like Detroit as an artist/creative city. There are inevitable conflicts of opinions and interests – the panels included a mix of these to offer a portrait of what is happening now.

Foundations and other funders, advocacy and capacity building organizations and those providing professional development, artist space development and entrepreneurship training have forged partnerships to help support and in some cases intervene lightly in this ecosystem – their work was also highlighted as part of the conference.

The Closing Keynotes by Allee Willis, a one woman creative think tank, and Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates left attendees with a clear call to action. Both concurred that artists do have a role in the transformation of the city, and moreover it is their boundless agency that should be supported and encouraged. Over the two days, Rust Belt to Artist Belt started a dialogue about the creative industries, the post-industrial economy of cities and artists value in society.

Cezanne Charles is an artist and curator who co-founded the hybrid art & design practice rootoftwo. She is Director of Creative Industries at ArtServe Michigan and was the lead curriculum partner on the 2010 Rust Belt to Artist Belt.