Make or Break

Kate Sutton at Culture Lab Detroit

Left: Detroit Creative Corridor Center’s Ellie Schneider at Shinola. Right: David Stark, David Adjaye, Humberto Campana, Fernando Campana, and Theaster Gates at the “Art Interventions” panel at the College for Creative Studies. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton)

FORGET “MOTOR CITY.” Detroit may yet gain a rep as a city of two wheels, not four, thanks in part to Shinola. The all-American-made luxury purveyor of watches and leather goods recently debuted a line of retro-inspired bicycles so luscious, they make metal mouth-watering. Founded in 2011, the brand has already garnered myriad admirers, including Bill Clinton, who was posing for pictures at the Detroit factory the same day I was touring Shinola’s outpost in the shopping district known as Cass Corridor, part of the itinerary for last weekend’s Culture Lab Detroit, a three-day festival celebrating the city’s creative output. While I understood the symbolism of basing an industry in Detroit, were bicycles really suited for Michigan, where, even with May just around the corner, passersby were bundled in parkas and boots?

“People do bike! I mean, it gets cold, sure, but I lived a year without a car,” Ellie Schneider assured me over lentil burgers at Traffic Jam and Snug, a comfort food staple next door to Shinola. Schneider is the associate director of Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), an incubator for promising initiatives. Through support of projects like the Artifact Makers Society—which advocates “conscious consumption” through artisanal and locally sourced production, touting the word “make” as less a verb than a lifestyle—the DC3 has helped usher Cass Avenue from an area notorious for its petty crime to a bastion of design boutiques, fair-trade coffee shops, and environmentally responsible coworking spaces like Green Garage, whose interior partially consists of repurposed wood. (“Nature doesn’t have a Dumpster,” designer and Garage resident Chad Dickinson shrugged.) One drawback to all this do-gooding, however, is that these start-ups have found themselves competing for a very limited pool of resources.

Left: Artist and Heidelberg Project founder Tyree Guyton. Right: Patroness Jane Schulak. (Photo: Ara Howrani)

Detroit should have seen this coming the moment so-called “ruin porn” hit the popular press. Before this trip, I had never heard anyone use the word “blight” in conversation, but over the course of four days last week, I heard it repeatedly, as if locals were on implicit damage control, determined to set the terms for how the city’s admittedly dramatic history gets told. After all, these are people used to dealing with tourists who just want to see the derelict train station. (Full disclosure: I really wanted to see the derelict train station.) Now, however, another kind of backlash is looming against terms like “creative place-making.”

“Cass Avenue is starting to look like Royal Oak,” gallery owner George N’Namdi declared later. He was mid-debate with curator Ingrid LaFleur over whether or not the city’s recent transformation fell under the rubric of “gentrification” or “colonization.” N’Namdi’s own complex—the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, replete with a gallery space, conference facilities, a gift shop, library/wine bar, and a killer vegetarian restaurant—is impressively settled a few blocks from the Cass Corridor. “There’s not gentrification in terms of physical displacement, but there is a psychological gentrification we should be concerned about. These new developments are rendering the local population powerless, symbolically,” N’Namdi argued. “The real problem is, when we show the blight in Detroit, it’s always in an African American context. When we talk about change, however, it’s only about 10 percent African American. Just look at all these visualizations of what the city is supposed to look like in the future. They might just be projections, but everyone is white.” LaFleur concurred. “We understand that change is going to happen, but we have an opportunity to curate our city and we’re not taking it.”

Culture Lab Detroit frames itself as “a catalyst for conversations and collaborations.” Founded by local patroness Jane Schulak, and operating under the aegis of the DC3, it supplements a three-day program of exhibitions, tours, concerts, and panel conversations with two salon dinners, giving locals and invited guests alike the chance to poke at some of the elephants in the room. “I’m not selling a T-shirt,” Schulak retorted. “This city is rebuilding itself on creative capital, and I’m trying to see how I can be a part of that process.”

Left: Dealer George N’Namdi at the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art. Right: Artist Scott Hocking in his studio.

It’s still very much in a learning stage. Brooklyn-based event designer extraordinaire David Stark was the only repeat guest from last year’s inaugural edition, which zoomed in more tightly on the local scene. “It was tough,” he confided. “I remember one woman raising her hand and asking, ‘Why are we talking about design when I can’t afford to keep living in my own house?’ ”

“I really had to think hard about the specific combination of guests for this year,” Schulak admitted. “I wanted to get a good variety of perspectives, but then I wanted a thread that would tie them to one another and to Detroit. So I ended up going with artists who, in their own ways, demonstrate social responsibility, craftsmanship and respect for resources.” Her final roster brought together artist Theaster Gates, architect David Adjaye, and whimsical Brazilian designers Humberto and Fernando Campana in a conversation titled simply “Art Interventions.”

Both Adjaye and the Campana Brothers had other projects in the city (Adjaye was launching a line of chairs for Knoll and lecturing at Cranbrook, and the Campana Brothers had an exhibition at Re:View Gallery), which left Gates hyperaware of the speculation around his visit. Over a pre-panel glass of champagne, he insisted that his presence was not that of “an outside expert,” but rather “a co-conspirator.” “For a long time I didn’t come to this city because I didn’t want to be part of some hype, some badge reading ‘I too have conquered Detroit!’ This invitation didn’t feel like conquering; it felt like a conversation to come and see what’s going on.” Gates shrugged off rumors that there might be a project in the works, though more than one source suggested that should a certain historical building complex end up getting slated for demolition, the artist might be convinced to intervene. Speaking not to this proposition but more generally, Gates observed, “The problem is that people look at the end product: ‘Oh, he likes to reanimate old buildings. We have a lot of old buildings.’ That’s missing the point. The part that is much more compelling is people, and how you think about people in relation to the abandoned buildings. If I don’t know the people, how can I work with the building?”

Left: Curator Ingrid LaFleur with artist Olayame Dabl at Dabl’s African Bead Museum. Right: Designer Chad Dickinson and Artifact Makers Society’s Bethany Betzler at Green Garage.

Adjaye kicked off the panel with the supposition that architecture is inherently cyclical. “Detroit just feels like it’s starting its next story.” Later, Fernando Campana recounted how he became an artist the day his father took him to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. Afterwards, he went home and promptly set about making his own spaceship out of cactus and bamboo, the materials at hand. Gates pushed the image to query the link between poverty and resourcefulness, implying that what Detroit now had to work with was, essentially, cactus and bamboo. “Cities have budgets for demolitions, not for innovation,” he lamented. “We need to be thinking not, ‘How do you build cities in Korea?’ but rather, ‘We have a situation today where most people in the US won’t make more than $50,000 a year. How do you build a $30,000 house?’ ” Adjaye cut in: “It’s not just about solving a given issue. We have the resources and the capacity to build $5,000 houses. Our task is to figure out how we manifest the world we want to live in.” These questions would loom large as guests streamed into the first salon dinner, held at Le Petit Zinc, a plucky French Bistro in what used to be an old dentist office in historic Corktown.

Stark would mastermind the second salon dinner, which took place the next evening at the Birmingham home of Jane and Eddie Schulak. Two giant woks full of delphinium crowned the long table in the orangerie, which looked out onto a garden boasting over 1,500 varieties of herbs and vegetables. The previous evening’s crowd—DC3 director Matt Clayson, College for Creative Studies president Rick Rogers, artist Toby Barlow—was now flanked by a fleet of sleek Italians. “FIAT,” my seatmate mouthed to me, stirring vague memories of headlines past. Of course, it’s one thing to read about business dealings and quite another to watch them manifest at a dinner party. We played it safe and kept to praising the food, a Moroccan-style feast served on Pewabic Pottery.

Left: My Brightest Diamond performs with Migguel Anggelo at the “In Cahoots” concert at Trinosophes. Right: Patron Eddie Schulak at the Heidelberg Project.

We would pass Pewabic’s legendary studios the next morning, on our marathon tour of the Detroit art scene. We started with the Heidelberg Project, an initiative that began in 1986 when artist Tyree Guyton painted a pink dot on a house to ward off East Side crack dealers, which is now struggling to rebound after recent arson attacks. From there, we set off for Burnside Farms, a community farm run by Kresge Fellow Kate Daughdrill, then on to the Mies Van der Rohe–designed complex Lafayette Park; the Z Lot, a downtown parking lot featuring work by street artists like Revok and Pose, b., Maya Hayuk, and Wais; the MBAD African Bead Museum, a bona fide highway landmark, thanks to Olayami Dabl’s outdoor installations; and a superb, locally sourced lunch at Rose’s Fine Foods. One of our final stops was the studio of Scott Hocking, the affable artist who became a go-to after a 2009 Time article christening Detroit “an icon of the failed American city” cited one of his site-specific sculptures as evidence of the extraordinary creative leanings of local vandals. While Hocking genially fielded questions, I found myself distracted by his book of photographs, Bad Graffiti, which captures such winning inscriptions as BITCH WE WANT OUR TRAILER, SEA HORSES OF THE APOPOLYP, and HARVARD U. I tuned back into an animated conversation just in time to hear Hocking conclude “…but that’s probably the only time I’ve found a dead body.” At long last, our ruin porn. On the way home, we saw the derelict train station.

Culture Lab culminated that night at the coffee shop/bookstore/performance space Trinosophes with “In Cahoots,” a concert that juxtaposed My Brightest Diamond and Venezuelan vocalist Migguel Anggelo. With the Detroit Party Marching Band on backup, My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden took to the stage in a shako and matching jacket, diving in with “High, Low, Middle,” an exuberant ode to Detroit. “When you’re privileged, you don’t even know you’re privileged,” she crooned, with a knowing shoulder shimmy. “When you’re not—you know.” Looking around the space, I would have to disagree; this was a crowd that was quite aware of just how lucky we were at that moment.

Left: A section of the Heidelberg Project. Right: College of Creative Studies' Rick Rogers with Detroit Creative Corridor Center's Matt Clayson at the salon dinner at Le Petit Zinc.

Left: Event designer David Stark. Right: Heidelberg Project director Jenenne Whitfield.

Left: Artist and restauranteur Karima Sorel at the salon dinner at Le Petit Zinc. Right: Collector Marc Schwartz with artist Brian Barr at the “Art Interventions” panel at the College for Creative Studies.

Left: Cranbrook Academy outgoing director Reed Kroloff. Right: Salon dinner at the Schulak residence.