Art and the post-industrial community in Detroit and Chicago

MOCAD, Detroit

By Kenn Taylor

In 2016, I was awarded an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant. This enabled me to undertake research visits to several organisations in Detroit and Chicago who are on socially-engaged art practice in post-industrial communities.

I’m originally from an industrial town in Merseyside and lived in Liverpool ahead of and during its year as Capital of Culture in 2008. Because of this, the relationship between art, artists and art organisations in areas struggling with industrial decline has always been important to me. This has very much informed the approach I’ve taken to programming throughout my career in museums and galleries. Having followed closely many socially-engaged artists and projects in the UK, I also became interested in examples of this practice in America.

The Heidelberg Project in Detroit was the longest-established initiative I visited. Begun by artist Tyree Guyton in 1986, he decided to create ‘something beautiful’ in the run-down Heidelberg Street by painting bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for generations. Soon Guyton began to decorate and modify abandoned houses in the area and then the street itself using reclaimed materials. Thirty years later the project is a world-renowned ‘total work of art’ and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit

MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, meanwhile, is an arts institution established 10 years ago in a formerly abandoned car dealership. Notably, it’s also the base of Mike Kelly’s work Mobile Homestead.

Mobile Homestead was unveiled in 2010 and funded by the UK’s Artangel. A recreation of Detroit-born Kelly’s childhood home (which is still standing and occupied) made as a pre-fabricated building with a detachable trailer section. Kelly’s idea was that this could be transported around the city with the ground floor being a flexible community space and the basement a place for artists. Based behind MOCAD, the Homestead functions as a dedicated space to host community content exhibitions and events; everything from local craft groups to, recently, lively election debate parties.

Mike Kelly’s Mobile Homestead, MOCAD

Over in Chicago, around 10 years ago artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he’d moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 financial crash, he also bought the neighbouring property. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and filling it with cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he then began to put on arts events. By 2010, he’d established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation and had rehabilitated a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects.

Dorchester Projects, Rebuild

A few years later, Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for just a dollar, providing he got the money to restore it. Amongst other things the bank now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. Rebuild’s most recent initiative is Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists and sells products and services to help sustain the foundation’s work.

While all of these organisations are distinct, they are united by having a focus on the re-use of previously abandoned or underused urban space, involving communities in their activities and demonstrating a complex relationship between artist, artwork and art organisation. In the case of MOCAD, an art institution occupied an old building and with Mobile Homestead, ended up creating a semi-permanent new building as an ongoing social practice artwork. In contrast, the Heidelberg Project started out as the creation of an artwork out of buildings and has morphed into also being partially an institution. Rebuild Foundation started out as a project based around art activity in run down properties using reclaimed materials, before growing into a full-scale neighbourhood renewal project, but one that is also an ongoing artistic experiment.

Johnson Publishing Archive, Rebuild

The projects are not only re-purposing and re-imagining buildings and areas in a very different way to traditional urban redevelopment schemes; they’re also highlighting the continued life, activity, creativity and culture in areas often more associated in art terms with the genre of ‘ruin porn’, that seeks to portray them as empty, tragic ruins.

Art projects like the ones I visited may be partially a product of decline, but they speak as much of the potential future of these areas as their past. They may be led by complex theories and an emotional desire for continued community life, but they create outcomes that are very much concrete: housing, artspace, crafts to sell, community facilities, training opportunities.

Vital to the success of these initiatives has been a close and long term relationship to the areas in which they’re situated. Connected to this is the fact that for all the genuine community involvement in such projects, the figure of the individual artist, pursuing their vision against the odds: Tyree Guyton, Theaster Gates, Mike Kelly, remains central in a very traditional art historical sense. This raises the question of what happens to these projects when their founder moves, or indeed, passes on.

Stony Island Arts Bank, Rebuild

While at Rebuild, I attended one of the weekly ‘Tea, Coffee and a Chat’ meetings led by local residents and they spoke about the positive impact the foundation has had on their neighbourhood. While artefacts from such initiatives could be kept in collections or even whole districts be preserved, the people who benefit from them are perhaps their most important legacy. Can the power of this social action also be retained by these projects in the longer-term?

How the founder-artist plans for posterity will be key to this. Mike Kelly, for example, setting in stone the community use for Mobile Homestead as being part of the artwork itself has ensured the preservation of such space for ‘social sculpture’. The power in projects like this is both social and artistic, and if they can retain each aspect in the long term, they will be important parts of both future art and urban history.

This piece was published by the Art Fund in April 2017.

Beauty as a Basic Service

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit


By Kenn Taylor

In the wake of Brexit and the US election, there has been renewed attention given to post-industrial areas and the issues faced by such communities. For some parts of the US and the UK, problems caused by industrial decline have been around for 40 or 50 years, long before the rise of China, the EU or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And, as anyone who spends time seriously with the subject will tell you, there are no easy answers or single solutions to such challenges.

So to art. Despite the breathless proclamations of some, art is not a panacea for the post-industrial town, but neither is it a total irrelevance. The creative industries remain a growing sector and a sensible solution to reuse many former industrial spaces that will never see mass production again.

Meanwhile, in some of the residential areas that once drew their lifeblood from such industrial zones, artists, or local communities working with artists, have been using creativity to demonstrate, even make, a future potentially different from top down regeneration or abandonment to decline. The now well-known Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool is one example of this in the UK.

Between Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory I had the opportunity to spend some time at some similar projects in the US. In 1986, in the Black Bottom area of Detroit – a city which perhaps more than any other felt the crushing pressure of industrial decline early on – art student Tyree Guyton decided to paint large bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for decades on Heidelberg Street.

The area had declined rapidly during his lifetime and he wanted to create “something beautiful” in the street. Soon Guyton began to decorate some of the abandoned houses in the street, using reclaimed materials from the neighbourhood. Thirty years later, despite being demolished by the authorities, twice, and suffering arson more than once, the Heidelberg Project is a world-renowned “total work of art”, and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.


Part of the Heidelberg Project.

It’s not so much a celebration of beauty in decay like the infamous “ruin porn” from Detroit, but a sign that there is life and people still here, creativity, culture, even growth.

Chicago coped better than Detroit with the transition to a service economy. At least, some of it. In Grand Crossing in South Chicago, more than half the residents live below the poverty line. Here, around 10 years ago, artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he had moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 property crash he also bought the neighbouring house. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he then began to put on arts events in the houses. Gates had seen the West Side Chicago neighbourhood he grew up in demolished and wanted to stop such destruction from happening again in Grand Crossing.

By 2010, Gates had established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation, and had worked with the Chicago Housing Authority to rehabilitate a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects. A few years later Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for just one dollar, providing he got the money to restore it.


Dorchester Projects, Rebuild Foundation

Amongst other things, the bank, now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. More recently the organisation has set up Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists. The Rebuild Foundation places art firmly in the hierarchy of needs of a deprived community. To quote Gates: “Beauty is a basic service.”

There’s a long tradition in art of highlighting urban social problems. Projects such as these differ in using the urban fabric as a medium in itself and working on the regeneration not just of buildings, but of social, cultural and economic life in these areas. Crucial is how these projects have been led by people based in these communities, albeit interacting with international art networks. Such initiatives may have only impacted on relatively small areas – but it is possible they have done more to change life in and perceptions of them than many bigger and more expensive top-down urban redevelopment programmes.


The Stony Island Arts Bank, a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center.

Part of the power of art is its capacity to highlight where we’re going wrong, to tell us things have value that we didn’t realise and point out different ways of looking at the world. Even if projects such as these can’t be reproduced like-for-like elsewhere, they’re not just a reminder to avoid writing off such communities, but more so of their potential – if energy, attention and money are given to them – to create their own future.

This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in December 2016. Funding for this research in Detroit and Chicago was provided by The Art Fund