Art Works Blog

Postcard from Detroit

Washington, DC

Here I am with Rip Rapson before our panel session in Detroit. Photo by Lynne Avadenka

I recently visited Detroit for the Art X Detroit: Kresge Arts Experience. This event features Kresge arts fellows, and it’s focused on Detroit, where I think they’re doing cutting-edge work. There are two senior fellowships---awarded this year to Marcus Belgrave and Charles McGee---but mostly the fellows are up-and-coming young people in the arts scene in Detroit. I had brunch with the fellows earlier in the day and got to mix with them a little bit.

Then Rip Rapson---the president of the Kresge Foundation---and I were on a panel that was hosted by Luis Croquer who is the director of Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art. We talked about Kresge’s work in the arts, and the NEA’s work in neighborhood revitalization and creative placemaking. And, you know, one of the things I said was that we borrowed some pages from the Kresge playbook, in terms of what we’re doing now at the NEA. They’ve been into place-space initiatives, especially in the arts, now for quite a while---certainly, since Rip has taken over there. And, a lot of their work that they’re doing there is very exciting, and we want to be a part of that.

My trip to Detroit had been on my calendar for some time, but Rip called me earlier in the week and he said, “By the way, it happens that the Detroit Symphony is having its first performance in six months on Saturday night, after a long and bitter and difficult strike. Would you be interested in coming to the first performance?” And I said, “You bet!”

So, I showed up at the Detroit Symphony for their first performance. You know, they hadn’t had much time to rehearse---a couple of days---but they gave a terrific performance. And amazingly, during the first act I think, just before they did their rendition of Gershwin’s American in Paris, the maestro, Leonard Slatkin, mentioned to the audience that there was someone in the audience tonight and that he wanted to acknowledge---Rocco Landesman, the chair of the NEA. I was taken aback! And what was even more amazing, and very moving, very touching, was that there was a tremendous ovation from the audience.

This occurred after one of the really neat moments of the evening---and this is not something I’ll soon forget—right before the concert began. The audience was seated, and Maestro Slatkin had the orchestra file in from the wings. And the audience gave them the most enthusiastic and validating reception you could imagine---a huge ovation in the house. Obviously, they were glad to have their symphony orchestra back, and that was really a moving moment, no question about it.

It’s no secret that Detroit is having tough times. Artists can be very important in the renaissance in that city, because they change neighborhoods. I think what you’re going to see with what artists are doing in Detroit is going to be a message we can send out across the country---that artists can change places. There’s no doubt in my mind.

To learn more about the arts in Detroit, check out our Art Talk with young Detroit arts leader Margarita Barry.

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