TOPICS > Arts

Where Detroit Industry Has Floundered, World-Class Art Scene Flourishes

July 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Detroit, where the population has dropped by 2 million, abandoned and neglected buildings are a normal sight. But look more closely, and beautiful murals and graffiti appear everywhere. Correspondent Spencer Michels reports on how artists, flocking to the city, are helping to spark the ailing economy.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: A Great Lakes city embraces art to help spark its economic comeback. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has the story.

SPENCER MICHELS: When they lit off fireworks in Detroit, a preview of the Fourth of July, Detroiters flocked to the city’s downtown riverfront. It was a reason to rejoice in a city that hasn’t had much good news of late.

Police were on the alert for possible gang violence, and the crowd knew this might be the last celebration because of the city’s huge budget problems. The crowd reflected the demographics of the city, a city that today is 82 percent African-American, about 8 percent white and 7 percent Hispanic.

It’s a place where first whites, and then blacks, fled to the suburbs, where the population has dropped nearly two million people since 1950, to just 700,000. Like the Detroit River, where ships used to ferry tons of materials to the Ford plants, the city of Detroit has undergone major changes.

After a decline in livability, residents say the town is now coming back, and along with it the arts are flourishing. The easiest place to find it is on the side of abandoned buildings. There is so much that when these artist-decorated houses burned recently, hardly anyone paid attention, just another fire in a city very used to things going up in smoke.

Still, graffiti is everywhere in Detroit and some of it is spectacular.

Detroiters don't quit. I think you see that in every single one of these pictures, and I think you see it out on the streets.

VITO VALDEZ, Detroit Artist: The work that we have out, out there is world-class, you know?

SPENCER MICHELS: World-class?

VITO VALDEZ: World-class. We have artists here that come from around the world. We have a great vibrant art scene.

SPENCER MICHELS: Vito Valdez spends part of his time in El Paso, Texas, and part in Detroit, where he teaches and paints. His family, like many Mexicans, came here to work in the auto industry decades ago. His murals that celebrate his heritage adorn many neglected buildings, and there are plenty to adorn. But he acknowledges that some of the outdoor graffiti isn’t really art.

VITO VALDEZ: The stuff’s great. The only thing, it’s when we get some gang tags, groups that come in to mark their turf, and that’s where things get a little rough.

SPENCER MICHELS: There’s no question things in Detroit are more than a little rough, with whole blocks gone and empty streets. But the real estate left behind is incredibly cheap. Houses can be bought for $30,000 and rents are low. So, though there are no statistics available, artists have flocked to Detroit, and many who were born here, like Gilda Snowden, have stayed.

GILDA SNOWDEN, Detroit artist: Artists have always survived under less-than-optimum situations.

SPENCER MICHELS: Snowden, a Detroit native and expressionist painter, has watched her city decline, never giving up hope. She works in a spacious studio in an old building where artists are welcomed. Her work has been influenced by the graffiti that surrounds her. She says some old aphorisms apply to Detroit.

GILDA SNOWDEN: ‘A Bohemian can live where an animal will die.’ Another one: ‘artists make real estate.’ Artists go into places that may not be so beautiful, but if you can go in and you can make your work, it’s a great place. And we have always found places like that. The city is coming back. It can’t help but come back. When you’re down at rock-bottom, where else are you going to go?

SPENCER MICHELS: Detroit’s predicament has become its own objet d’art. The prestigious Detroit Institute of Art asked residents to get creative. The institute, which already has cut its budget by over $6 million and is seeking a local tax to help it survive, distributed 750 cameras to people all over the city.

The instructions? Just shoot what they wanted and tell the city’s story and their own — 12,000 photos later, the city library is displaying those images.

ANNMARIE ERICKSON, Detroit Institute of Art: People are making art. They’re talking about art. They’re looking at art. They’re listening to art. Art is really on the cutting edge of all the things that are happening in Detroit. I do know that Detroiters don’t quit. I think you see that in every single one of these pictures, and I think you see it out on the streets.

SPENCER MICHELS: You certainly see it on Heidelberg Street, where artist Tyree Guyton has turned two blocks of the city into an outdoor museum of found objects and abandoned houses. He says the Heidelberg Project, which he began in 1986, makes you laugh, it makes you happy.

It’s a very accessible monument to Detroit’s decay and abandonment and to its hope of resurrection. More than 200,000 people visit each year. Another group of artists is taking advantage of empty buildings. The 555 collective has moved into the abandoned third police precinct station and is developing space for artist studios and galleries, using foundation funds and donated labor to fix the place up.

Painter Hugo Navarro was among the first to start work here in a holding cell, where he thought the light was just right. Somehow, it inspired him.

(LAUGHTER)

HUGO NAVARRO, Detroit Painter: There’s a good feeling of getting here, open your own jail cells, and leave any time that you want. I need that freedom, yes, yes.

SPENCER MICHELS: But for Navarro, a native of Chile, with another studio in Southern California, it’s more than the jail cell.

HUGO NAVARRO: Detroit to me is an inspiration as a whole.

SPENCER MICHELS: He and his landlords work at improving the space, getting it ready to show to the public. Among their prized possessions is a concrete slab with graffiti by the celebrated British artist who goes by the name of Banksy. It was rescued from a demolished Packard plant; 555 organizers are hoping to draw people to look at and buy the art they produce.

Some artists are prospering, despite the economy. Bethany Shorb, who moved to Detroit 13 years ago, designs silk-screen neckties. She employs five people, and she’s produced 100,000 ties, which are sold all over the world.

BETHANY SHORB, tie designer: There’s definitely no shortage of bad things happening. But there’s an influx of really great things happening. I think we have a flight returning to the city of all colors, of all persuasions.

SPENCER MICHELS: Shorb shows her neckties at a pop-up retail store in downtown Detroit run by Margarita Barry, a graphic designer. She’s the creator of a website called I Am Young Detroit, designed to counteract the negative image of the city.

MARGARITA BARRY, I Am Young Detroit: Detroit is a cool place to test ideas and businesses, because, you know, the startup costs aren’t as high as if it were a New York or a Chicago. We kind of have our own vibe here. It’s a little bit more casual. It’s a little bit more laid-back.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Detroit’s art isn’t laid-back, according to the owner of one of the city’s top fine arts galleries, George N’Namdi.

GEORGE N’NAMDI, art gallery owner: Detroit has a very unique kind of — it’s like a down-to-earth, earthy, kind of in-your-face kind of art. I think it has to do with the general history of Detroit, just being a tough kind of place where people live and made things happen, and people love very much being here.

SPENCER MICHELS: N’Namdi’s gallery is currently showing Styrofoam works by Jim Pallas, portraits of art giants of Detroit, including one of N’Namdi himself. He is working to bring back his midtown neighborhood, and he is convinced there is a core of Detroiters who will buy the expensive art he has to sell.

GEORGE N’NAMDI: You have a whole big large professional class of people, particularly like African-American people, that are living here. And you have one of the highest number of African-American businesses in the country.

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, for all the energy and optimism, some artists, like Jacob Martinez at the 555 project, are afraid of what will happen if the city turns around.

JACOB MARTINEZ, Detroit artist: We want to stimulate the economy as artists, because we know that it will help us, but we don’t want to be used by the economy once more. Again, it’s historic that artists get used to flourish economies, and then once the economy is flourishing, then we get discarded. We get pushed aside. And then we’re no longer seen as a driving force. And that’s the part that worries me the most.

SPENCER MICHELS: For Detroit, a turnaround would be very welcome, and the flourishing art scene could well be a catalyst to make that happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our Art Beat page, we profile Detroit graffiti artist Antonio “Shades” Agee, whose work has gone from city walls to museum walls.