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MICHIGAN AND CALIFORNIA : DETROIT

You think you know a city, but look beneath the surface, and secrets come out. Motor City, for example, is experiencing a rebirth at the hands of its artists.

November 13, 2011|Andrew Bender
  • A pianist tickles the ivories at Caf DMongos, a speak-easy that has reopened thanks to downtown Detroits growing revitalization.
A pianist tickles the ivories at Caf DMongos, a speak-easy that has reopened… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

DETROIT — "Where you headed?" asked the cheerful driver of the rental-car shuttle at the Detroit airport.

"Detroit!" I answered, equally cheerfully.

"Southfield, Birmingham or Rochester?" he asked, referring to well-to-do northern suburbs.

"No, Detroit," I responded.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, November 17, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Detroit arts: An article about Detroit's arts scene in the Nov. 13 Travel section misspelled the last name of artist and gallery director Simone DeSousa as DeSouza.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 20, 2011 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Travel Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Detroit arts: A Nov. 13 article about Detroit's arts scene misspelled the last name of artist and gallery director Simone DeSousa as DeSouza.

Silence, then a shrug as if to say, "Suit yourself."

Many Americans -- even many Michiganders -- see Detroit as a place to be feared: impoverished, decimated and down-and-out depressing. Sure enough, my drive into the city center took me past what a friend calls "desolation porn": eerie shells of onetime factories, warehouses, shops and office buildings, and block after block of overgrown lots that used to be comfortable working-class neighborhoods. During my visit, the local newspaper reported coyote sightings in the city.

Yet Detroit is evolving, not unlike late 1990s downtown Los Angeles. Cheap rents and an urban pioneering spirit are attracting young artists, and new restaurants, nightspots and even urban farms are serving this growing community and its hipster fans. It's still the early days, but change is palpable, even to the casual visitor.

"I tell my colleagues, 'Have your portfolio ready! There's a big spotlight on Detroit!' " said Gilda Snowden, an ebullient painter and professor of fine arts at the city's College for Creative Studies (one of the region's arts incubators, along with Wayne State University and the suburban Cranbrook Academy of Art). She pays $800 a month for a 2,500-square-foot studio with a kitchen and Jacuzzi.

There's plenty of inspiration in the designated Cultural Corridor, in the Midtown neighborhood just north of downtown Detroit. I stayed at the Inn on Ferry Street, a bed-and-breakfast in a cluster of Victorian homes off Woodward Avenue. It's just a couple of blocks to the Detroit Institute of Arts, by my reckoning America's most overlooked major museum: 658,000 square feet (more than 11/2 football fields) founded in 1885 and reopened in 2010 after a five-year renovation. I could have spent an hour ogling Mexican painter Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" frescoes (1932-33), but I was glad I made time for the collections of contemporary and African American art, and masterworks such as Pieter Brueghel's "The Wedding Dance" (circa 1566).

Within a few blocks' walk, the College for Creative Studies' student galleries exhibit skillful works of illustration, product and transportation design, photography and more. The campus sculpture park boasts pieces by Richard Serra, Alexander Calder and other 20th century luminaries. The nearby Scarab Club was founded in 1907, dedicated to artistic pursuits. Rivera, Marcel Duchamp and Norman Rockwell visited its Renaissance Revival building (1928); on my visit, the exhibition "Family Ties" featured intergenerational works by Detroit artist families.

The problem for these artists, said Simone DeSouza, is that "Michigan artists don't sell to Michiganders." Local collectors might visit New York or Los Angeles to buy work made in Detroit. Aiming to change that, DeSouza opened Re:View Contemporary Gallery in 2008 in a loft-style building that could be at home on either coast.

George N'Namdi, a long-standing downtown gallerist, exhibits artists of local and national prominence in a former auto collision repair and body shop. Across Woodward Avenue, the storefront Detroit Artists Market produces themed shows, such as "Smaller Pieces at Smaller Prices," by Michigan artists.

A map by Art Detroit Now ( www.artdetroitnow.com) highlights dozens of farther-flung art sites. One is the Russell Industrial Center, which at first glance looks like yet another abandoned factory. At its height in the 1940s, the 20-acre, 2.2-million-square-foot site accommodated 13,000 workers building Ford auto bodies and World War II airplane parts.

Now, though, artists pay $600 to $700 a month for 1,000-plus square feet of studio space. "You name it, we have it," said Chris Mihailovich, Russell's manager: The 150 tenants include painters, sculptors, photographers, glass blowers, print makers, furniture builders, makers of custom concrete countertops and even a gym opened by a former SWAT officer. His rule for tenants: "Respect the other artists, and don't wreck the place." Some have decorated studios and hallways, such as Dale Teachout's colorful assemblages of found objects. Wander around and an artist may well invite you in.

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Hipster hangouts

Besides galleries and studios, "People are discovering how food, culture and community intersect," said Monica Bowman, director of the Butcher's Daughter gallery just outside the city limits in Ferndale.

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