Detroit is a city of art. Strange to say, but it’s true. While much has left this impoverished, often heartbreaking metropolis, what remains, surprisingly, is a rich art history, which is today right on the surface. With origins that run deep and predate the automobile, Detroit’s artistic roots flower over the city streets left empty by the cars that have, by and large, driven away. And they deserve attention, which is why I visited with the family on a late-summer road-trip, ten hours from New York, twelve by way of Niagara Falls—a rewarding and remarkable artistic pilgrimage.

It was a close call for Detroit to reach its current and still parlous state of the arts. Most of us had little idea of the Motor City’s artistic legacy until it was almost too late. After decades of decline, the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009 hastened Detroit’s own insolvency, which in 2013 led to the largest municipal collapse in American history. Detroit was $18–20 billion in debt. As an emergency manager looked to liquidate assets, creditors made headlines as they closed in on the city’s remaining jewel: the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the country’s great encyclopedic museums.

Most of us had little idea of the Motor City’s artistic legacy until it was almost too late.

For most museums in the United States, even those on municipal land such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum, permanent collections are secured by private institutions maintained in the public trust. For the Detroit Institute, or dia as it is known, founded by the newspaper magnate James Scripps and incorporated as the Detroit Museum of Arts in 1888, the one-time wealth of Detroit encouraged its trustees to transfer ownership to the city in 1919.

The faith that those museum administrators once placed in the future of their city says much about the wild extremes Detroit has experienced over the last century. From a population of nearly 2 million in 1950, when it was arguably the richest city per capita in the country and the Silicon Valley of the Machine Age, today Detroit retains under 700,000 residents, experiencing a 25 percent decline in just the last decade as entire neighborhoods have been abandoned as ghost towns. A history of violence, Jim Crow, corruption, race riots, white flight, failed redevelopment, and monorails-to-nowhere has long accompanied these seismic shifts. Today much of the city seems more passively desolate than actively menacing, with weedy, empty streets and an abundance of graffiti-scarred architecture, some remaining from its Gilded Age. But such images of what have become known as Detroit’s “ruin porn” only tell one side of the story. The arts give a broader picture of the full, continuing life of the city, and they may play an increasing role in its future.

This is not to say that the arts will “save Detroit,” as some have suggested. The sociologist Richard Florida, who wrote The Rise of the Creative Class in 2001, has staked much on this messianic and largely unproven claim for rustbelt renewal. Instead, cities work best when the planners get out of the way of artists rather than attempting to use them as tools of gentrification. Basing your urban future on jet-setting bohemians coming to town for a Matthew Barney film shoot is no way to keep the lights on and the water running, or, more to the point, strengthen the local cultural fabric.

The arts give a broader picture of the full, continuing life of the city, and they may play an increasing role in its future.

In his scabrous 2012 book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be, Mark Binelli was onto something when he wrote that “any potential Detroit arts renaissance remains in its earliest phase of development, more about insane real estate opportunities and the romantic vision of a crumbling heartland Berlin—basically, vicarious wish fulfillment by coastal arts types living in long-gentrified cities—than an overarching homegrown aesthetic.” Various reports of the founders of the Williamsburg, Brooklyn arts space Galapagos relocating to Detroit to develop (or flip) unused factory space have only fueled such creative-class speculation.

But Detroit did end up saving the art, starting with grassroots initiatives like the Heidelberg Project, founded in 1986 by the artist Tyree Guyton and his grandfather as a surreal outdoor installation over reclaimed buildings in the city’s McDougall-Hunt neighborhood. The rescuing of dia was a similar story of renewal that starts with the art itself. In 2014 Detroit’s latter-day Monuments Men won a decisive battle for cultural reconstruction by fighting to reach what was called a “grand bargain” to save the museum. With a collection valued at $8.4 billion, and 2,800 objects worth between $454 and $867 million claimed by the city—including a self-portrait by Van Gogh estimated at $150 million—dia successfully scrambled to raise hundred of millions of dollars from a combination of private, state, and corporate donors to pay off the creditors. In return, the art stayed on the walls, the museum returned to its pre-1919 status as a private, non-profit institution, and the people of the state demonstrated the value they place in Detroit’s art history.

The Great Hall of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Dia is today in better shape than its Detroit surroundings, which isn’t saying much, but those expecting to find a museum that is partially finished (like the Brooklyn Museum) or partially closed (like today’s Met) will be surprised at its institutional polish. dia’s rise out of Detroit’s ashes has stoked its institutional enthusiasm as one of the best half-dozen museums in the country. A visit here alone is worth the trip.

Starting in the 1920s, dia’s museum director Wilhelm Valentiner, following the German model, was the first to arrange his collection by nation and chronology, rather than type. He also greatly increased dia’s collection of modern art and was responsible for its single most well-known, and controversial, installation: Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry.

Personally, politically, dietetically, Rivera was a repellent individual, but you can see why capitalists from Rockefeller to Ford became enamored of the unrepentant Marxist. Painted over twenty-seven panels, floor to ceiling, from 1932 to 1933 in the museum’s light-filled central court, Detroit Industry captures the one-time dynamism of the city in a swirling, hallucinatory tableau. This “iconized Marxist fantasia of working-class solidarity and collective toil,” as Binelli describes it, unites the workers of the north, the farmers of the south, and the raw materials of the Americas in one interconnected utopian vision. The didacticism of the spectacle is saved by its strangeness, as Rivera worked in imagery of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, Frida Kahlo’s miscarriage, and the kidnapped Lindbergh baby—pagan currents flowing in the chthonic depths beneath Detroit’s River Rouge. (The dense iconography is today supplemented by an excellent multimedia guide on dia’s website, which is also available on touch screens in the gallery.)

A sense for the subterranean runs throughout the artists of Detroit, especially those responding to its decades of decline. The late artist Mike Kelley, who was born in 1954 in a working-class suburb of Detroit, was a patron saint of the post-apocalyptic city even after he relocated west, exhuming the afterbirth of its marriage of man and machine. Much of this was on display in Kelley’s arresting PS1 retrospective in 2014. A member of the alt-rock band Destroy All Monsters, Kelley connected Detroit art and music, a scene which gave rise not only to Motown Records but also to the punk aesthetic of MC5 and The Stooges, and later techno—music, in various ways, all connected with the internal combustion engine and the sounds of the assembly line. In 2014, an exhibition called “Another Look at Detroit (Parts 1 and 2)” at New York’s Marianne Boesky and Marlborough Chelsea, arguably the best gallery shows of the year, made explicit these cultural connections by gathering some hundred objects by seventy artists from over two centuries of Detroit cultural history. This magisterial “tone poem” was the work of the art consultant and Detroit native Todd Levin—whom I must also thank for suggesting I try the world’s best pancakes at a Detroit motel diner called Clique.

Mike Kelley, Mobile Homestead, 2012Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Just down Woodward Avenue from dia is the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Mainly a Kunsthalle for contemporary shows, the museum’s big surprise can be found behind the parking lot. What looks like a modest prefab ranch house oddly positioned on an urban block is Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead. An uncanny reconstruction of his childhood home, the building now hosts rotating installations and a street-legal, detachable entryway that has already gone cross country. According to Kelley’s posthumous wishes (he committed suicide in 2012), the house is built with two private subterranean levels: a windowless duplicate floorplan beneath the ground level and, below that, a series of tunnels and ladders to connect the doorless rooms. A post-war dream atop a post-apocalyptic nightmare, the building serves as a chilling artist memorial.

A Detroit-area cultural institution very much in contrast with all this is Cranbrook, a school and cultural complex nestled in the sylvan and still- wealthy suburb of Bloomfield Hills. Founded in the 1920s, this institution may be best known today as the prep school where Mitt Romney bullied his classmates. But the Cranbrook Academy of Art also represents the prewar ideals of Detroit design given fascinating form in a pristine Arts and Crafts and Art Deco campus created by Eliel Saarinen. The Eameses both came from here, and Eliel’s son Eero went on to adapt the styles of Cranbrook for the jet age.

The sensitivity of the works speaks to the personal, the underground, and the hidden spirit of the arts in Detroit.

My trip to the Cranbrook Art Museum largely left me wanting more, as the campus’s extensive permanent collection is now sequestered in a new “Collections Wing” that is only open for one hour a week while the museum is given over to special and not-so-special exhibitions. Through October 9, the museum’s new director has imported his exhibition from the Walker Art Museum on “Hippie Modernism,” which makes a few interesting connections between Sixties utopianism and the dawn of the Information Age but mostly smells of patchouli and BO. It also has nothing to do with the school. Fortunately my visit was redeemed by a smaller, more technical exhibition downstairs on Pewabic Pottery, the ceramics studio and school founded in Detroit in 1903. I also took a detailed tour of the impeccable Saarinen House and Garden. As a total work of art, Cranbrook serves to remind us that Detroit, at its height, was a city of design that made flying sculptures and not just modes of auto-mobility.

Wasserman Projects

Back in Detroit, the contemporary gallery scene is small but sophisticated and growing, with several venues that have recently moved to the city. Wasserman Projects is a Chelsea-style space a block from the city’s extensive Eastern Market that over the summer was showing a group exhibition, including a whimsically enlarged notepad doodle by Michael Scoggins and a delicate collage of “oil, latex, gold leaf, string, soap, pencil” by Ed Fraga. Downtown, David Klein Gallery casts a wide and intelligent eye over the alternative scene by bringing together painters such as Brooke Moyse, Gary Peterson, and Mark Sengbusch. Over the summer, Galerie Camille, another smart venue just north in Midtown, brought together the artists Jeff Bourgeau and Matt Eaton in an elegant exhibition of Colorfield painting with a twist. As much an exhibition of process as of product, Eaton’s layered compositions of acrylic and spray paint contrasted with Bourgeau’s pixelated computer printouts of painterly forms.

Baby Grand gallery

My last stop proved to be a highlight: the opening of “It Runs Deep” at a gallery called Baby Grand in a burned-over corner of the city’s Southwest. This group show of Detroit-area artists, including Amber Locke, Alivia Zivich, Audra Wolowiec, Daniel Sperry, Kylie Lockewood, Margo Wolowiec, Nikolas Pence, Romain Blanquart, and Scott Reeder, was perfectly installed in the front rooms of an Arts and Crafts home that the owner of the gallery has named for its piano and illuminated only with natural light. The sensitivity of the works, from Wolowiec’s sound installation to Reeder’s abstraction, speaks to the personal, the underground, and the hidden spirit of the arts in Detroit—which now, after a thaw, is beginning to grow into the light of day.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 2, on page 56
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now