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.
Read more at Urban Land Magazine.