N’Namdi Center For Contemporary Art begun the first of a three-part panel series on ‘Psychological Gentrification,’ which will explore how contemporary gentrification is affecting the arts, businesses, and urban development in Detroit. The first panel was moderated by Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press, and panelists included Marsha Music (Writer/Cultural Griot), Marc Brown (Lawyer), Piper Carter (Artist/Photographer), Kate Daughdrill (Artist/Urban Farmer), and Dr. George N’Namdi (Founder/Executive Director N’Namdi Center For Contemporary Art).
Some highlights from the questions and answers from the panel-
What was the ‘Detroit art scene’ like before the recent developments and ‘revitalization’ narrative?
In terms of art in Detroit- historically, Detroit as a metropolitan area, has been very strong in the Arts. From having a top museum, having a symphony, having an opera house…and when we started the gallery in the early eighties, 1981 to be exact- Detroit became the hub for African-American art for the nation, and it was only number two behind New York, in terms of artists selling, and many of the artists, many of their biggest selling shows were in Detroit.
There’s been a lot of changes. One thing that has been very important to me, is that we have to keep the Arts somewhat organic… When developers start leading the Arts, we get a whole different type of art. It becomes commercial. It becomes driven by just the space.
Historically when you look at communities such as SoHo, Wynwood, Chelsea, Geary Street in San Francisco, River North, West Loop in Chicago- the developers follow the artists. In a way, that’s what has happened in Detroit, believe it or not. When people started talking about all of the artists moving to Detroit because of the inexpensive spaces. And I would always say, they are coming for the inexpensive spaces, but why do you stay in Detroit? You stay for the Soul of Detroit, you don’t stay for the inexpensive spaces, you have those all over the country. I think the biggest challenge is when the developers, when they start having galleries that really are developer-driven….that’s what really kinda of changes the Arts and I think we always had this history, and I think it’s important that we need to keep the closeness to the Arts and that organic quality to it.”
– George N’Namdi
…Where I feel concerned in thinking about gentrification and how that relates to the Arts, is you know, I don’t go to these things [galleries] as much, but a few things that I have been to or heard about- when it’s a young, white group of people all hanging out doing art in a way that seems like it could have been in Brooklyn, and suddenly it’s in Detroit, and it’s being celebrated as art, and this is the ‘new art scene in Detroit,’- that’s just really dis-concerning to me, because of how soulful and real the creativity and the lessons and the education in this place can be. And I think part of that is really being embedded in a fabric of a place where there are people that are different than you, and where you’re open to learning, and going slow, and really listening.”
Do you feel that media- national, local, mainstream, alternative- portray the Detroit artist community thoroughly and authentically?
I don’t think media portrays much really accurately. In particular, there was some article about 9 artists here, none of the artists were of color… If they talk to Jack, they are going to get Jack’s impression… as so part of this is… there is a thing about not being the victim, not being the person who is put upon by others, but you have to put it out- so if you rely on the New York media who came to visit their friend- and that’s all they got, was what their friend told them, what their friend showed them of this city, of the art community, then that’s all you’re going to get, you’re not going to get anything different.”
I think that one of the things that is striking to me, and something that I talk about fairly often, and write about very often, is not limited to the Arts, but it is the over-arching narrative about Detroit, period- which is a problem that is fueled by the media in many respects. Because one of the problems with the narrative of Detroit, is that we have a depiction of the city as the golden age of Detroit, as being primarily the early century- as being white and prosperous, and hard-working and dedicated, and the imagery and articles follow that narrative.
It is a narrative that is devoid of black people; although we were coming to into the city by the thousands, by the hundreds per day. But we are absent from the narrative. And from that point of invisibility that is experienced by African-Americans, all kinds of problems emanate from that. Because if you start off by painting us out of the history of the city, and we don’t appear until basically we started making Motown music and then the city was burnt down in 1967- that’s our contribution to the city narrative?- then you gonna have a problem, because it affects everything as far as how we are viewed. What is the relationship of outsiders to the city and newcomers to the city? So I think that the city’s narrative- it is very important, that there is a much more sophisticated writing of the city, a less simplistic view of the city and that the narratives of the city be challenged.”
How do newcomers with positive intentions get involved with the ‘old school’ creative community? Where should they start? [Asked on behalf of PLAYGROUND DETROIT]
There are a number of black arts events that whites don’t attend. For example, white people should come to the African World Festival which is the most amazing festival in this city… it’s at the Charles Wright Museum, and I think so many people would enjoy it if they came. I think also, there is a tendency if you live in the city to be really isolated from the actual people in the neighborhood[s]. And it might be a feeling that you’re not wanted there, and it might also be a feeling that you don’t know quite how to react, how to be a part of the community. Most of the time you are wanted there, because just the way that the thing plays itself out, your very presence is going to improve the quality of their life, that is one of the unfortunate aspects of white privilege, and the people in the community are generally very well aware of the things you do.
It’s about being aware. The very fact that you are here that says a lot, right there. This willingness, and I believe that so many young of the people coming to this desire to come live amongst us, but you know, you’re a part of us, you’re a part of it. You just have to take it one day, one thing at a time. It’s just about trying to make human contact with other people and to not allow the privilege of being a white person block your relationship with the black people who are around you who do in fact generally want you here, and are probably doing all kinds of things in the background to look out for you.
There’s a few practical organizations that are incredible, that are great connectors, that bring a lot of different people together. One is Keep Growing Detroit, they have a garden resource program that has around 3,000 gardens in it, and so many of those gardens are just Detroiters that have been here for so long…there’s potlucks where you’re with some of the most heartfelt people… Join that… that’s a great way to know people. Joining a community garden in general is a great way to meet people around you… The Boggs Center too, is an incredible organization that brings a lot of different people together, and they do conferences and gatherings and there’s just a lot of powerful conversations going on in that organization. The willingness to be open and make the conscious effort to step into the relationship to cultivate something with the people that live around you.”
The next panel discussion will take place on March 19, 2015, from 6-9pm on “Gentrification & Business.” The last panel discussion will take place on April 16, 2015 from 6-9pm on “Gentrification & Urban Development.”