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Forget the hype and experience the art and history that Detroit offers up in spades. We visit the Diego Rivera mural, Heidelberg Project, MOCA, abandoned buildings, and much more. To see us take more art trips, support our channel by visiting: http://www.patreon.com/artassignment.

Thanks to our Grandmasters of the Arts Vincent Apa and Indianapolis Homes Realty, and all of our patrons, especially Bronze Bond, Patrick Hanna, M12 Studio, Jane Quale, and Constance Urist.

Subscribe for new episodes of The Art Assignment every other Thursday!

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(PBS Digital Studios logo)

Detroit carries with it a substantial mythology, the glory days of the American automotive industry, the decline of the American automotive industry, motown, white flight, rebellions or riots, ruins, Robocop, bankruptcy, more ruins, and resurgence.  The city reached its population peak of 1.8 million in 1950 when it was the fourth largest city in the country and the predominant story since then has been one of decline, but while the population of Detroit proper may half of what it once was, there's still a lot here.  What if we forget all the hype and just look at the city for what it is, what it has, and who is here?  

We begin at the destination of many a Detroit pilgrimage: the Motown Museum, where the signature sound of the city was born.  Berry Gordy bought this building in 1959 and lived with his family in the upper unit while the first floor housed his business, Motown Records and Studio A, where pretty much every amazing song you associate with motown was recorded.  Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.  All of them recorded in this room, on these worn wooden floors, at all hours day and night.  Producers gave direction and cut tracks using the equipment that's still there in the control room.

Motown moved to LA in 1972, but this site became a museum in 1985 to house artifacts and photos and host exhibitions to share the legacy of Motown.  They engage future generations in the important musical history that happened here and have a significant expansion in the works.  The sign out front isn't bragging.  It's fact and you can stop by anytime you like to pay your respect.  

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A short drive away is another pilgrimage point, the venerable Detroit Institute of Arts, which was spared from creditors who targeted its collection to pay off municipal debts after the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and it's a good thing, because the work we came to see really shouldn't exist anywhere in the world but here.  

Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals were completed over the course of 11 months, beginning in 1932.  The famed Mexican muralist had been commissioned by the museum's director and Edsel Ford to paint two murals related to the history of Detroit and its industrial development.  After researching and spending time at the Ford Auto Plant, Rivera was so intrigued and inspired that he suggested expanding to all four walls.  They agreed and now we have this.


We were nearly alone in the space, a rarity, and we marveled at the vibrant mural cycle as bright morning light raked across its surfaces.  The still brilliant color we can credit to Rivera's expertise in the technique of fresco painting, where pigments are worked directly into still wet plaster.  On the east wall, Rivera depicts new life, represented by nude women cradling a bountiful harvest and a child growing in the bulb of a plant.  The north wall gives views into Ford's River Rouge plant, where we see the making of motors from a blast furnace glowing in the distance to its final stages in the assembly line.  On the south wall, we see cars taking shape and a giant stamping press we know is Rivera's representation of Aztec goddess Cotalicue, a creator and destroyer of life.  

Rivera was a Marxist and his murals are a tremendous tribute to the many workers who fueled Detroit's industry and whose sacrifices to the industry gods were quite literal.  He believed art should belong to the public as it does here in this space.  The west wall symbolizes endings and last judgments with the double edged sword of technological advancement and its capacity for destruction on display.  


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The invocation above the door as you exit "Life is short, art is long" feels both true and also like a wish.  There is much more here, including a remarkable set of galleries devoted to art created by African-American artists and about African-American history and experience.  The department bridges seamlessly into their contemporary galleries but I can't show it all to you, so just promise me you'll go, okay?

We then made our way to the Heidelberg Project.  In 1986, artist Tyree Guyton returned to the street where he grew up on the east side of Detroit and began cleaning up vacant lots and abandoned buildings with the help of his grandfather and neighborhood kids.  With paint and by repurposing refuse and materials they found, Guyton transformed much of the street and sidewalks into this giant outdoor art environment, although other residents do remain. 

The effort was incorporated into a non-profit community organization with the mission of improving the lives of people in neighborhoods through art.  Tires, old kid toys, signs, outmoded electronics, and holiday decorations form a mound from which brick columns emerge like chimneys, reminding us that yes, there were once other houses on these vacant lots.  Moments that feel more random are followed by others that are very much composed.  Empty shipping containers call out 1967, the year of the Detroit rebellion, which began after police raided an unlicensed bar and unraveled into one of America's largest civil disturbances of the 20th century. 

Guyton conceived the project as a kind of medicine for a Detroit community that had seen tremendous and devastating change, offering up a site where neighbors and visitors can come together to play, interact, and reflect and also participate in educational programs, festivals, and forums.  It didn't take long for people to object to what he was doing, neighbors as well as the city.  Several of the house installations have been demolished, others destroyed by arson, and what remains is here only through the vigilance of the project's staff, supporters, and legal team. 

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Heidelberg has evolved over the years and has the feeling that it's at once in the process of being created and also destroyed, with new replacing old, fresh paint next to faded, and I'm sure you've noticed clocks are everywhere, both a reminder of time's passage and also an insistent questioning about what's happening now and what might be in the future.  

Guyton started dismantling parts of the site a couple of years ago to make room for a new vision he calls Heidelberg 3.0.  We'll be watching.

Construction, redevelopment, and restoration can be seen in many areas of Detroit, especially downtown.  This giant hole is going to be Detroit's tallest tower and beyond it, we can see murals by How and Nosm on the left and Shepard Fairey on the right.  Library Street Collective commissioned these as well as a number of other projects around the city like this billboard by Willie Wayne Smith and "The Belt", an alleyway where you can experience rotating exhibitions of large scale paintings, get a drink, and also visit the Collective's gallery when they're not between shows.

Library Collective works with a number of entitites public and private to bring new artwork to Detroit, like this development and also an enormous new bronze sculpture by Kaws overlooking campus (?~7:25) park, a parent and child arrangement of the artist's signature skull and crossbones meets Mickey Mouse companion character.  Approaching the riverfront, you can take in another huge scale bronze, Robert Graham's 1986 monument to the legendary boxer and Detroit native Joe Lewis, a centennial gift to the city from Sports Illustrated Magazine.   

Beyond it lies Hart Plaza, an expansive space that hosts large public gatherings, provides magnificent views of the Detroit skyline, and also contains sculptures, including the spire on the right by Isamu Noguchi, as well as a large fountain behind us, also by Noguchi, which was off and looked kind of sad that way, so I'm not going to show it to you.

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Here's a pretty picture someone took in 2009 to give you a sense.  A short walk away is the Guardian Building, an art deco building that was completed in 1929.  Its glorious interiors have been maintained and restored to exquisite perfection, decorated with (?~8:21) tile and a central clock by Tiffany.  Oh, it's time for us to stop for the day.  

We began day two in the north end of Detroit at the studio of artist Scott Hocking, which is filled to the brim with the objects and evidences of his past and future artworks.  Scott has lived and worked in Detroit proper for over 20 years and has spent a great deal of time exploring the city's vacant and unused spaces, using the site and its materials to create sculptures and installations.  Sometimes he brings these materials into art galleries in Michigan and far beyond and sometimes he uses abandoned or unused spaces to create works right on site.  This has involved spending eight months building a pyramid out of wooden floor bricks that remained in Detroit's Fisher Body Plant 21, vacant since the 1980s and also crafting an egg-shaped structure out of marble remnants that once lined the interior corridors of Michigan Central train station.  

He photographs what he makes so that people who can't get there can see it.  The lifespan of these constructions are uncertain and often short, subject to the whims of other tresspassers, scrappers, and changing keepers of the properties, but he also makes work much farther afield, like inside a former railway station in the French city of (?~9:40), combining materials he brought from Detroit with those found within the station and nearby street market into a fantastical cabinet of curiosities.  

Scott took us to see an installation he'd just made in the Eastern Market neighborhood for the annual festival that takes place here called Murals in the Market.  He found dozens of discarded concrete sewer pipes on the site of this long-vacant warehouse and out of them created 17 towers, reaching as high as 22 feet tall.  

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It's cheekly titled after Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone's artwork "Seven Magic Mountains" that emerges brightly in the desert outside of Las Vegas, made from painted, locally-sourced boulders.  Hocking's version is equally totemic but less alien, less tidy, more native to its environment.  No signage accompanies these that says who made them and how.  You find these mysterious megalithic structures by wandering around, surrounded by the contributions of other artists who make their mark without invitation.

There's plenty to look at here besides the installation.  Venturing into the warehouse shows you that people have been here and will continue to come here.  Hocking's contributions are more large-scale versions of the traces of life that exist all around, reminders that places like these may not be as abandoned as they're assumed to be.  

All around Eastern Market, you can see murals, many or most of which have emerged from past years of the festival, and we enjoyed looking at them, although not without starting to ponder over who gets to make art legally and where and who makes those decisions, but next we stopped by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, or MOCAD, on whose facade you can see Martin Creed's neon work "Everything Is Going to be Alright".  

On our way in, we visit Mobile Homestead, a work by the artist Mike Kelly that is a full-scale replica of the house he grew up in in the suburbs of Detroit.  The facade can be detached and driven around to neighborhoods around the city and it's currently installed here to be used as a flexible community center and sp.  ace for events and exhibitions, like the one on view now, called Pocket Size, featuring sculpture, architecture, painting, and historical recreations that are all, yes, pocket sized.  

Inside we encounter a truly delightful pop up shop by California based Katie Kimmel, who makes ceramics and clothing and describes her sense of humor as "98% angel, 2% devil", but we were there to check out MOCAD's exhibition of work by Tyree Guyton, who makes work beyond the Heidelberg project.

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This show takes a retrospective look at the 30 years at the Heidelberg project, including groupings of works representing many of his ongoing series.  Clocks are here, of course, from his "What Time Is It?" series, and also works from his "Faces in the Hood" series, portraits Guyton made on car hoods and trunks of people he's met as Heidelberg has unfolded.  With this exhibition, we're able to see Guyton's work in the white box standard space of today's art galleries, with labels and explanations, as well as the artist's meditation on the arson and associated conspiracy theories that have plagued the project.  It's a valuable opportunity to consider what's lost and what's gained when art made for and from a particular site leaves its home environment and enters the more formal spaces of art.  

At MOCAD, we ran into Ricky Blanding, a young ceramic artist who took us just across the street to Sugar Hill Clay, a community clay studio that offers classes and memberships so you can work on your own.  Ricky kindly showed us how a person with talents such as his could quickly transform a lump of clay into a perfect bowl.  Thanks, Ricky.  This is what his finished work looks like, by the way.  

From there it was a short drive to the Mbad African Bead Museum and  outdoor sculptural installations, the spectacular creation of Olayami Dabls.  Before he began this project, Dabls had been a curator and an artist-in-residence at the African American History Museum, and after starting to collect beads from Africa, began the sprawling endeavor to encourage local access to cultural artifacts.  For his work, he primarily uses iron, rock, wood, and mirrors, which he sees as materials able to speak universally to all cultures, and the mirrored surfaces do the remarkable work of bringing in the additional materials of the surrounding neighborhood, the sky, and also you and those who are there with you.

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There are 18 outdoor installations, as well as the (?~14:07) House, an African language wall.  Dabls has an extensive collection of African material culture stored in the townhouses here that will one day be exhibited in a proposed expansion of the museum.  In the meantime, you can contribute to their fundraising efforts and also visit the bead gallery, full of a stunning array of African beads.  Many of these are antique and rare and have stories behind them that you can learn about by talking with Dabls himself, who can often be found presiding over the shop, glad to share his deep knowledge with locals and the guests who visit here from around the world.  

Our last hours in Detroit, we spend on Oakland Ave, starting at the construction site for what has been and will be American Riad, the collaboration of Ghana ThinkTank and Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition, as well as North End Woodward Community Organization and Central Detroit Christian CDC.  You can see one of the prototypes for it hanging on at the edge of this ditch, but it's a multi-year project of skillshares and public art to create a Moroccan-style Riad, a central, shared courtyard between these two buildings that will and already has served as a public space for gatherings, workshops, gardening, performances, and the display of art.  Luckily, one of the project's organizers was available to talk to us.  

Jamii Tata: Please, my name is Jamii, I'm the president/CEO of the Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition, one of the founders, and I work toward building the art corridor on Oakland Ave in the North End.  There's a large amount of young people in this neighborhood and there's not a lot of safe spaces for them so, you know, something that's beautiful, that appeals to folks of all ages, but also is just cool and some place for young people to be is really important, so we deal a lot with placemaking and placekeeping, like, after a place is created, not only is it beautiful, we want to make sure that folks have an opportunity to enjoy it, so we program it, be that open mics, be that community cookouts, be that readings.  

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I'm a poet and I teach other kids how to write and perform so they have an opportunity to have some place to share their work and their art.

Sarah: Jamii took us on a tour of the neighborhood and showed us some of the work he and the cooalition have been doing nearby.  

Jamii: A lot of the things we do harken to the legacy and the history of the neighborhood and how the current folks of today get a chance to pay homage to the past, so you know, what we're doing as creatives along Oakland Avenue is continuing what happened not so long ago, because Oakland Avenue was one the bustling business district of not only Detroit, but the nation.  I really want people to realize that people are here, like, some folks never left the city and some folks will never leave the city, and some folks have been working their butts off on building community and community infrastructure and that we have artists.  We have creatives, we have engineers, we have architects, we have landscape architects, and even if those things are not present in a neighborhood, there are young people that can grow into those things.  

Sarah: We tend to think of architecture and infrastructure as permanent, but Detroit challenges that assumption.  So much seems to be missing, but the people of Detroit are actively demonstrating what's still there and asking important questions about what should stay, what should go, and what kinds of spaces will bring the people and resources already present in this great city into collaboration and collision and conversation.  We'll be back to see what happens next.  

Want to see where we go next?  Subscribe, and if you'd like to support our show, consider giving a little each month on Patreon.  Thanks to all of our Patrons, especially Vincent Apa and Indianapolis Homes Realty.  

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(Credits/Endscreen)