why artists are finding a creative haven in detroit
The city's sense of space and diverse art scene has been idyllic for artists like Kearra Amaya Gopee and Pamela Council.
Detroit has been called “America’s Berlin.” Which I didn’t expect of a city located in the bottom right hand corner of a mercurial swing state (Michigan voted for Trump in 2016). But when I visited Detroit, the parallels between the cities were fast apparent. They’ve each suffered separate, but equally debilitating, economic crisis, their architectures belong to bygone eras, and techno music reigns supreme at nightclubs and warehouse parties.
But the strongest connection “The Motor City” has to Berlin is its DIY art culture. The city has become a playground for creators of marginalized backgrounds, due in large part to its affordable rent (“affordable” when compared to the astronomical rents of art capitals like Los Angeles and New York) and steadily increasing gallery spaces. Each year, a larger exodus of creatives flood the metroplex. Whenever I asked curators and museum heads where they were from, I received the same answer over and over: New York.
All of this has the art world asking, “Is Detroit the New New York?”
Artist Scott Campbell made the decision to leave New York behind for Detroit after visiting the city in 2015. “I found myself ready for a move,” he says, standing inside his spacious studio. Large sculptures-in-the-making fill the room. It’s hard to imagine Scott having the same kind of space, or access to cheap, raw materials, in a NYC studio.
“Detroit is interesting in the sense that everyone is building something here,” says Scott. “In New York, I felt like I had to figure out how to fit into an existing system.” He says Detroit also appealed to him because of its diversity. The city’s population is 83% Black — the largest in all of America. “It’s nice being able to go into, say, a Home Depot and feel like I’m one of many.”
The complicated history of Detroit can make the city feel more accessible to others. Kearra Amaya Gopee, an artist originally from Trinidad, says spending three months in Detroit for her Red Bull Arts residency felt more familiar at times, surprisingly, than New York. “Detroiters and Caribbeans have a lot of similarities in terms of being read as dystopian. A place after the fallout, after the capital has left the area… So I felt myself being seen and understood in interesting ways here. I don’t feel adrift in Detroit as I do in New York sometimes.”
But Detroit has become as much as place to see art as it is to make art. The second annual Detroit Art Week was held in July, seeing over 36 exhibition openings take place in the same week. Think of it as a more earnest and experimental version of Miami Basel. An enduring presence in the art world is the overarching goal, says Larry Ossei-Mensah, Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. “You don’t want this to be just one week where everyone comes and then leaves,” he explains. “We want people to come back to the city on their own.”
And the city has come to host an impressive array of artist residencies. ProjectArt, SpreadArt, The Forge. The biggest and splashiest is Red Bull Arts Detroit . Each year, Red Bull hosts three experimental, boundary-pushing national artists for a three-month residency. Artists are given housing, studio space, and a $12,000 stipend — a blessing for young artists who may be overwhelmed by the day-to-day pressures of trying to make rent and make art.
“Moving around has been essential to my craft,” says Pamela Council, one of Red Bull’s 2019 artists-in-residence. Pamela calls herself a New York native and was living in the Bronx before embarking on a year of various residences. She says she getting away from the city has not only cleared her mind, but also opened it. “I’m moving now into landscape architecture and that’s something I wasn’t thinking about when I was living in the South Bronx. Sometimes your ideas are limited by the confines of your studio.”
Pamela walks me around her installation, which is the size of a bedroom. A line of fountains, spewing Pink Hair Lotion (a staple in black hair care), fill the room. The experience is everything a personal studio space New York is likely to not be: roomy, quiet, clean. When we sit down, Pamela pulls out her phone and shows off the massive, avant-garde wigs she’s been working on while in Detroit. They were created in collaboration with Khalife'L Scissorhands of the famed Hair Wars competitions. Pamela smiles. “And I could only do that here in Detroit.”
Detroit’s art world ascension has also allowed Midwestern natives the ability to participate in art without having to pick up and leave for the coasts.
“Coming back home to Detroit was a necessary move for me, my practice, and my mental health,” says artist Darryl Terrell, who recently returned to his hometown after completing an MFA in Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago. “I didn’t want to be paying $600 just for a room in an apartment,” he says, with a scoff.
The move back home is paying off for Darryl. We’re talking inside of a hotel-room-turned-gallery-space, the tile floors covered in sand and a jacuzzi gurgling in the background. Darryl is one of 12 curators taking part in the Young Curators, New Ideas at the Trumbull and Porter Hotel. He worked with artist Derrick Woods-Marrow to recreate a beach — a common safe space for queer black men — as an exploration of the intersections of leisure, space, and identity. Darryl is grateful for the opportunity to make important, experimental work in his hometown, but he quickly points out, “I’m the only Detroit native in this show.”
Attention is a double-edged sword. Yes, it puts a great spotlight on the culture and artists of Detroit, but it also results in higher rents, stiffer competition, and increasing gentrification. To address the problem, the city recently sent its new director of arts and culture on a citywide “listening tour.”
The concerns are real and valid. One artist I talked to, who requested to remain anonymous, spoke about her years-long journey to secure a studio space of her own. The process has been long and hard due to rent increases, complex zoning laws, and shoddy landlords. She talked about getting carbon monoxide poisoning at one of her former studios, due to her landlord’s improper keeping of the building. As she pointed out, “But that doesn’t get talked about.” The long term effects of Detroit becoming “America’s Berlin” remain to be seen.