“I read the news today, oh boy.” The Beatles
With an oddly cheerful font, the recent Detroit News headline blared out, “Detroit’s Art Scene Fades.” Really?! This development came as quite a shock to me. All the evidence I knew of pointed to quite the contrary. Even though it was August (typically a slow month for art exhibitions), I was once again faced with more shows than I had time to write about (just of those I’d had a chance to see, never mind all the others I hadn’t), leaving me with the always difficult choice of what to leave out. It sure seems like the arts scene was doing anything but fading.
Did the people at the News perhaps know something I didn’t?
I’ve been covering the arts in Detroit for five years now and in that time, if anything, there is only a marked increase in the art offerings in the area. Our arts calendar editor Tom Carbone has his hands full every week just trying to make sure not one event gets left out. It’s a huge job. The map of Detroit area art spaces we created last spring (see it online here and here) lists nearly one hundred venues for viewing work. It’s an impressive picture of the richness of spaces that comes as a surprise to even people in the know about such things. When we come out with an updated map this September, while there will subtractions (I know of only one for sure at this point), there will be many more additions. (Including one I work for.)
And what about the artists themselves? From former industrial buildings crammed full with studios to individual lofts, basements, garages, and what have you – they’re everywhere, and they are active. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to and interviewing this community – and the consistent impression they share is that of a city that’s rich with possibilities. Where others can only see blight and decay, Detroit artists see the city as fertile soil, an incredible source of raw materials from which to create. With abundant cheap work space and cross-over of materials and craftsmanship from the industrially dense area, Detroit is an amazing place to make art. It is teeming with individuals making the most of the conditions here that make it all possible. That said, it has never been the best of places to sell art, but this is not new, and certainly not news. It’s never stopped anyone serious about making work here and it won’t. Of course, better private and public support for the arts would be great and is certainly needed. How to make this happen are the sorts of challenges we face as a community and the sort of thing the papers should be interested in covering.
So, if then, there are a lot of artists hard at work, a plethora of places showing their work, and new ones popping up all the time, what exactly is the News talking about?
It is, at its best, irresponsible journalism. Despite that statement, I have a hard time shouldering the entire blame on the reporter. The arts scene is difficult to know. It’s tricky to get a handle on the landscape. Places are pretty spread out – you can’t go door to door from art space to art space, which means it takes a great deal of time to get to know all that’s going on. Time, it seems clear, that that writer hasn’t spent yet – and no doubt editorial policy at the paper does not encourage writers to take that time. There’s plenty going on here, it’s just that these are stories have to be unearthed, uncovered, discovered. Which brings me to the mission of thedetroiter.com, week in and week out we’re devoted to, “unearthing a great American city one story at a time.”
As I said, keeping up with it all is hard work. It takes time to get to know the people, to be a part of the community you’re out to serve. When I started out, I didn’t know much about what was going on all around me. In venturing into places and asking questions, over time, I’ve gotten a better handle on the terrain. But the landscape is constantly shifting and there are always new stories waiting to be unearthed just around the corner. Once upon a time, the News was on top of all of it – in fact, they did so and did it well for 60 years. With Joy Colby on the beat for that entire time (!), the arts community had a true champion who kept in touch with what was happening and conveyed it to a sizable audience. This meant for much of her tenure, regular columns and a weekend magazine section devoted to the arts. Are Detroiters less creative today? Is there less work being made here than before? Absolutely not. It’s not the arts that are fading – it’s the news media that is fading, that has let us down. In the process of being bought and sold as many times as the papers have, the idea of serving the community has been lost in the shuffle.
So that’s that. If the paper can write the community off, perhaps we should think about writing the paper off.
Support your local Artist
This failure of the media does not mean that the community can’t have that public discourse so essential to its health – it only reinforces the desperate need for independent media (see our recent editorial on this topic.) If the media won’t help us, we just have to do it ourselves. The lack of coverage is why thedetroiter.com came into being, and why other Internet-based things like Dozier’s arts mailings and Ann Gordon’s arts blog have been such vital sources for information. Now, I’m not suggesting everyone run out and start their own listing, blog, or web-magazine, but we can contribute just by supporting what is already out there.
There’s work to be done here, yes – building community ain’t easy. It starts with being well-informed yourself. We might liken this to the instructions in case of loss of cabin pressure on an airplane – “put your own mask on first and then assist others around you.” In this case, get informed, give yourself that breath of life, and then share it.
I’m grateful for what I’ve learned and continue to learn all the time here. I feel privileged to get to write about so many people in this community over the years and bear witness to such displays of creativity and possibility. And I’m glad to be able to share it – to act as a guide of sorts to this dynamic landscape. This is an incredibly vibrant, active community. One just needs to know where to look. – Nick Sousanis
Your turn: The article in question stirred up a lot of thoughts in the arts community. We’d love to hear your take on it. So drop us a line, and next week in this space, we’ll run some of your thoughts and comments in this space. – Nick
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