Marshall Fredericks’s “The Spirit of Detroit.” (RiverNorthPhotography/Getty images)

Arts-led regeneration is nothing new, as the all-too-familiar tale of artists being pushed out of neighborhoods they pioneered but can no longer afford is well known. Public art generates tangible and intangible benefits, and in the most successful instances, it becomes an integral and beloved part of the community. Enhancing its environment, art enriches residents’ lives, instills a sense of civic pride, creates a shared history, connects communities, and provides opportunities for dialogue, engagement, and learning. By promoting cultural participation, public art stimulates cultural industries and the creative economy. And, especially important to the revitalization of Rust Belt cities, public art boosts the economy in a hyper-local way. The economic impacts benefit residents directly, driving spending to local businesses and creating jobs and opportunities for artists and residents alike.

While known around the world as “the Motor City,” Detroit has a rich history as a crucible of the creative economy that extends far beyond the automotive industry. Indeed, in 2015 Detroit was cited as a “City of Design” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—the first North American city to be so recognized. The UNESCO designation derives from one of seven creative categories with which member cities have a compelling history: crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts, and music.

The honor speaks to both Detroit’s storied past and promising future. Since the early 20th century, the Detroit metropolitan area has been home to noted creative types from across the arts and design spectrum, from both the automotive and architectural industries to furniture and graphic design, and even music.

Today, new creative industries are buoying the renewal of the Motor City, and with its UNESCO designation, Detroit’s place in the Creative Cities Network comes with a responsibility to promote culture and creativity as drivers of sustainable development and urban revitalization. As the city rebuilds and renews itself, that commitment should come with a visible acknowledgment of the public realm, in which art and urbanism can work in tandem to enrich the city’s cultural tapestry and promote social inclusion.

Detroit’s relationship to public art has been historically complex and fitful. It is a narrative marked by promise, competing special interests, failed efforts, and dashed hopes, along with some notable successes and a heavy helping of murals. Both the abundance of available wall space and the low economic barrier to entry often position murals as a default solution to the demand for public art. Transit-related public art projects, which account for a significant share of public artworks in other major municipalities, are almost entirely absent due to the lack of a robust transit system in Detroit. A notable exception to this is the People Mover, a three-mile-long (4.8 km) elevated monorail that circles the downtown area and began operation in 1987. Each of its 13 stations is enhanced by works commissioned from a variety of local and national artists.

The Spirit of Detroit

The city’s best-known and perhaps most beloved artwork is, understandably, Marshall Fredericks’s The Spirit of Detroit (1955–1958), which will often sport a Detroit Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons, or Lions jersey when one of the hometown teams is in the playoffs. Thoughtfully sited in front of the gently curving facade of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, designed by the firm now known as Harley Ellis Devereaux, the marriage between the sculpture and its site speaks to the success that comes from including public art early in the planning and design process. Built in the 1970s, Hart Plaza, perhaps the city’s most ambitious public space effort, was designed by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi in its entirety. While the space functions as originally intended for events such as the recently revived Detroit Jazz Festival, the original eight-acre (3 ha) design has been eroded and encroached upon by myriad public artworks of debatable merit, each initiated by special-interest “gifts” to the city, including Arto Tchakmakchian’s Gomidas (1980–1981), a memorial of the Armenian Genocide; David Barr and Sergio De Giusti’s Transcending (2001–2003), a monument of the labor movement; Robert Graham’s Monument to Joe Louis (1986), which was spearheaded by Sports Illustrated; and Ed Dwight’s International Memorial to the Underground Railroad (2001). The site has been in an almost steady state of decline since the day it opened, hemmed in by Jefferson Avenue’s nine lanes of traffic, the now-demolished Ford Auditorium, and Cobo Center.

Competing Visions

Absent a rigorous framework by which to plan, review, evaluate, and implement proposed artworks or arts programming, such is the result. An influx of small arts organizations has attempted to fill this vacuum and must now be navigated. While the work of these organizations is commendable, they draw resources away from each other that might better be marshalled in the service of a more unified effort. Two of the largest and most influential groups are Design Core Detroit and the Detroit Culture Council, each of which combines the efforts of multiple other arts organizations.

The city’s most recent Department of Cultural Affairs began its short-lived existence (1995–2005) during Dennis Archer’s tenure as mayor and was eliminated by his successor. In this vacuum, the city’s Department of Recreation has commissioned myriad public artworks for the sites under its stewardship, while more recently the Office of Strategic Planning has signaled plans to incorporate arts and culture as part of a framework to leverage neighborhood revitalization planning. It is no surprise that with an abundance of derelict building stock and no shortage of vacant land, murals and visionary outdoor art environments such as Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project and Olayami Dabls MBAD African Bead Museum have thrived in the city. At the same time, they have often been at odds with its administration, which has at times perceived them as blight and ticketed or torn them down accordingly.

Detroit’s Eastern Market, the largest historic public market district in the United States, has long been home to a thriving mural scene since murals were first used to revitalize the area in the 1970s with supergraphics that reflected the wares for sale. Today, the Murals in the Market festival continues the tradition by commissioning artists from Detroit and around the world to create new works that have made the district a destination and a vital platform for community engagement. The city administration commendably reversed its previously adversarial stance toward street art with the inauguration of the City Walls program, which includes a Blight Abatement Artist Residency Program that pays artists to create murals in place of illegal graffiti on private and city-owned properties and provides an option for owners whose properties are perpetually tagged to request murals to correct the blight violation. The residency stipend is $3,000 for eight weeks, and comes with the requirement that participating artists donate one piece of art to the city.

As the unmistakable signs of redevelopment appear throughout Detroit, more artworks have begun to dot the landscape. Arguably the city’s most prolific developer, Dan Gilbert is also one of the city’s biggest public art patrons, and his properties often include site-specific commissioned artworks. One of the newest additions is Charles McGee’s Unity, an abstract, black-and-white mural that spans 11 stories of Bedrock’s micro-unit building in Capitol Park. McGee, at 93, is a lifelong resident of the city and was recognized with the Kresge Foundation’s first Kresge Eminent Artist Award in 2008.

Last year, taking cues from Times Square in New York City, the Motor City did the unthinkable and temporarily closed a single block of Woodward Avenue to automotive traffic. Under the watchful gaze of Marshall Fredericks’s sculpture, residents and office workers spilled out into the streets, enjoying a sense of community in the Spirit of Detroit Plaza. Across Larned Street, with the arrival of the QLine and funding from Quicken Loans, a median was transformed with plantings, seating, walkways, and ongoing art installations, activating an otherwise unused area and strengthening the connection to the riverfront. The west riverfront is also now poised for great things as the result of a competition that has been narrowed as of this writing to four finalist teams led by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, Hood Design Studio, James Corner Field Operations, and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. In addition to these permanent works of public art, the city has also hosted its share of temporary projects, such as DLECTRICITY, a weekend-long art and light festival presented by Midtown Detroit Inc.; the Detroit Design Festival, presented by Design Core Detroit; and Light Up Livernois, which features fashion and performance art in the Live6 neighborhood.

The Truth Booth, a Cause Collective project, is a portable, inflatable video recording studio in the shape of a giant speech bubble that affords participants the opportunity to record a two-minute response to the prompt, “The Truth Is . . .” For two weeks in summer 2016, it traveled to multiple locations throughout the Detroit metro area, Dearborn, and Flint. Here, it is set up in Banglatown, an immigrant-rich neighborhood straddling the border between Detroit and Hamtramck, Michigan. The results subsequently took the form of an ambitious video installation at Cranbrook Art Museum. (Corine Vermeulen/Cranbrook Art Museum)

Connecting Communities

Elsewhere in Detroit, the Cranbrook Art Museum has been building connections between the suburbs and the city by partnering with community organizations to present projects like Nick Cave: Here Hear and the Cause Collective’s In Search of the Truth (The Truth Booth), not only connecting to underserved audiences as the projects moved through the city’s neighborhoods, but also choreographing an experience of the city for those who rarely venture off its beaten paths. Temporary projects like these are often more memorable than permanent installations that somehow become invisible over time; but more significantly, these temporary projects provide an opportunity for residents to participate and see themselves reflected in the work.

Given the many challenges and opportunities Detroit faces, it is incumbent upon the city to leverage every possible asset in the service of its redevelopment. The successes of public art programs and placemaking initiatives elsewhere, and the UNESCO designation in particular, provide a compelling rationale to include culture and creativity in that toolkit. While much is happening in a patchwork fashion, working more strategically to engage artists, collaborating with institutions, deploying the city’s assets, and connecting stakeholders would further strengthen these ad-hoc efforts and serve broader audiences without regard for geographic, racial, or socioeconomic distinctions. The city, its residents and visitors, the real estate development and investment community, foundations, and others doing business here all stand to benefit greatly from the implementation of a percent-for-art program, the reestablishment of an arts commission together with policies to ensure that the city’s public art is developed according to best practices, encourages participation of local artists, and maximizes innovative public/private partnerships to enhance not only the downtown core, but also all 139 square miles (360 sq km) that longtime residents call home. As a reflection of our time and culture, the arts bring people together and create community, fostering ideas, participation, and inclusionary societies. We have an opportunity to create a truly exceptional city that reflects our community to the world and brings the world to our door.