Art Talk with Margarita Barry
Margarita Barry. Photo by Kennette Lamar
Detroit is often cited as a national symbol of fallen fortune: its shrinking population, poor economy, and high crime rates are continually used by media outlets as examples of what’s wrong with this country. But Margarita Barry wants you to know that there’s another side to Motor City, one that’s blooming with youth and energy and art. A native of Detroit, Ms. Barry is the founder of IAmYoungDetroit.com, which profiles the city’s creatives and leaders under 40. A graphic designer and multimedia artist herself, Ms. Barry’s hope is to show off the positive aspects of Detroit, and offer a virtual hub of inspiration, advice, and ideas.
But her presence isn’t just online. Ms. Barry is also the force behind 71 POP, an upcoming “pop-up shop with a twist.” The shop will offer retail space for 71 rotating artists and designers, who will learn the ins and outs of operating a business at little or no cost---all while gaining crucial community exposure. Located in a converted abandoned property, the space is poised to alter both the city’s physical and creative landscape. We chatted with Ms. Barry via email about her many endeavors, and her one-woman mission to shine a brighter light on Detroit Rock City.
NEA: What is your version of the artist’s life?
MARGARITA BARRY: I’m a multimedia artist and aspiring change-maker, born and raised in Detroit. The easiest way for me to describe my life as an artist is that I make things for a living with hopes that they positively affect peoples’ lives in some way---everything from interactive online experiences to creating fashion garments from recycled materials. Like most artists, my life’s goal has always been to make a decent living pursuing my passions. Through my journey, I’ve discovered that I tend to measure my success not strictly by [how] people respond to my work, or by profit and return, but by the creation of social capital. I’m constantly asking myself, “How does this impact the community?” Of course accomplishing all three, though ideal, is no easy feat but I’m always up for the challenge.
NEA: You’re a working artist who has become one of Detroit’s leading creative entrepreneurs. What motivated you to more actively engage with the city’s creative community?
BARRY: As an artist living and working in Detroit, I organically became a part of the creative community and could identify with their struggle. I suppose my original motivation for engaging with Detroit creatives was just finding a space where I belong, and these are definitely my people. Detroit’s creative community is so supportive of one another, and here it’s really important to have that system and network to draw inspiration and resources from. My business side, of course, is always identifying pain points, so that became an additional motivation---finding solutions to issues that the community struggles with.
NEA: Both I Am Young Detroit and 71 POP involve inspiring and promoting young creatives. What do you think other organizations could be doing to further boost the city’s artists?
BARRY: Organizations should leverage their existing platforms and networks to provide new and exciting ways for artists to pursue their passions here. Under the Detroit POP umbrella, I’m looking to partner local companies with emerging talent to collaborate on rotating pop-up retail installations that would benefit both the artists and the companies. Its first project, 71 POP, will also expose the artists and their work by showcasing 71 of them in our space and documenting them and their experiences on 71artists.com.
When I Am Young Detroit launches its post-beta incarnation, we’ll not only highlight young creatives, but develop guides, events, and mentorship opportunities to help them really put their ideas into action. We’re also working on collaborating with local artists to produce t-shirts and other wares to sell online, creating additional exposure and revenue opportunities for them.
Then there are little things that can be done that could impact communities in a big way. For instance, local businesses could support local artists by buying their existing work, or commissioning custom work or installations. Can you imagine if every business made it a point to display local artwork on their walls instead of the usual framed, mass-produced poster prints?
NEA: What about Detroit gives you the greatest pride? What about it would you change?
BARRY: There’s this saying that we have here that you may have seen on t-shirts by Aptemal Clothing, that goes “Detroit Hustles Harder." That saying rings so true for us, because we really work hard at what we do. Because of that hard work, Detroiters are just really passionate about everything---from our culture, to our jobs, our neighborhoods, and the work that we produce. With that comes a strong sense of pride and protectiveness. Nobody understands our issues, our struggles, our achievements, and our resilience more than we do, and so we’re very protective of what people have to say about it---and it seems everyone has something to say. And so, that protectiveness…there’s some good and some bad that comes with that.
The good is that we really do support each other and rally behind common goals that positively impact our community, which makes us stronger and brings us closer together. The bad is that it sometimes isolates us from people outside of the region who are genuinely trying to reach out and help us overcome some of our hurdles. I think it’s important for us to be receptive to the ideas that they bring to the table. I also think it’s important for people outside of the region to try to understand where we’re coming from too, and not just paint us as some desolate disaster zone in need of salvation. We’re not just sitting around accepting things as they are; we’re the first ones out there trying to actively push change. This is our home.
NEA: Does Detroit inform your work as an artist? If so, how?
BARRY: I think Detroit inspires me the same way that it inspires the world. Without even trying, it’s rawness, edginess, and grittiness somehow ends up being reflected in my work. Besides that, it’s the spirit of the city that really drives me to create.
NEA: How did you come up with the idea for 71 POP?
BARRY: Growing up as an aspiring fashion designer, I was always dreaming of opening a brick and mortar retail space. As a teen, I even ran a few online shops and learned the ropes of running a physical space by managing a local boutique. As an adult though, I switched gears and maintained somewhat steady employment working as a graphic artist but didn’t want to pigeonhole myself; I never wanted it to end there. I believe now is the time and Detroit is the place to really go full throttle with pursuing all of those dreams previously left by the wayside. So I began seriously pursuing fashion again a little over a year ago.
In meeting other designers and artists and surveying over 400 of them with work to sell, I found that most of them felt limited with the opportunities they had to sell and market their work locally, which mostly consisted of consignment and weekend flea markets and fairs. I brainstormed several ideas for a physical retail space that would market and sell local designers’ wares and eventually found that a rotating pop-up model combined with operations, marketing, and online sales components could really offer an affordable and realistic solution. Thus, Detroit POP was born, and 71 POP is its first project. The goal is to have 71 creatives come in and install their shop, while we handle everything else. Its companion website 71Artists.com, will highlight its impact by documenting the 71 artists who set up shop in the space through video content. The space is going to be located at the 71 Garfield building in Midtown, Detroit---a formerly vacant and newly renovated green live/work space for artists. Right now I’m trying to offset some of the costs for the project through a Kickstarter campaign. The $8,000 would cover the space costs and artist grants for low-income and student artists to show in the space for free.
NEA: Part of 71 POP’s funding will come from Kickstarter.com. How do you think organizations and creatives today can benefit from crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and emerging technologies in general?
BARRY: With something new like 71 POP, which sort of walks the line between being a community arts project and a business, it’s not easy to find funding support from arts foundations let alone business investors. But artists have always found creative ways to get their work off the ground...and I think the new crowd-funding platforms follow in that tradition. If you can gain enough momentum and community support to raise capital for your venture, then you’re well on your way. 71 POP has about a month left and only 16 percent of our $8,000 goal has been raised, so it’s definitely no easy feat, no matter how promising the project. But I’m an artist, so there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll find a way to persevere. Maybe I’ll create my own funding platform. Give a creative the right technological tools to take their ideas to the next level, and the opportunities are pretty much limitless.
NEA: An ongoing discussion at the NEA right now centers on creative placemaking. Where do you think pop-up shops fit into this conversation?
BARRY: I think pop-up shops can really be an effective way of bringing life to a once vacant or underutilized space, and because they often operate for short periods of time, [they] can be an affordable alternative to permanent retail. Not only do they bring people together to be inspired by art and to shop locally-made products, but empowering creative entrepreneurs this way generates income, and can have a trickledown effect that benefits all citizens. Alone it’s a cool idea, but it’s the combined efforts of everyone in the community that’s really making a difference. 71 POP isn’t just this single effort that’s impacting the area. It’s also the building owners---who decided to dedicate the entire space for artists to create, work, and live in---it’s the developers in the neighborhood who recognized the value of creating an entire arts district, [it's] the creative small business owners who saw the opportunity to call the district home, and [it's] the community leaders who support the creative businesses and projects inside the district by promoting it in their newsletters and groups. Together, we’re all doing our part to use arts and creative entrepreneurship as a catalyst to revitalize our city.
NEA: What do you think is the artist’s role in the community?
BARRY: Detroit is a hotbed of creative entrepreneurs and thought leaders who are rethinking urban living and putting in elbow grease to redesign our landscape. I believe that these creatives should be the ones to help bring innovative ideas to life, and have a significant impact in helping to revive our urban neighborhoods. The role should never just be creating art, but also actively finding ways to use art to positively affect people, neighborhoods, and communities.
NEA: Conversely, what do you think the community’s responsibility is toward the artist?
BARRY: Engagement with arts definitely has a positive effect on the community. It creates social cohesion as people come together for a common good, and I think it should be a part of everyday life. It’s important that our communities embrace artists and really make them feel like they have a place where they can belong. That could mean simply showing up to an art show, donating scraps and materials, or offering up a small part of a building to use as a canvas. It really doesn’t take much. Support even in these small doses can go a long way.