Postcard from Michigan
March 25, 2010
It was great to hear from Jeff Daniels about the Purple Rose Theatre and also to get to see first-hand the transformative effect it's had on Chelsea. (Photo by Elayne Gross)
I?ve just returned from a trip to Michigan, which started in Chelsea. Chelsea is a small town; the population?s about 4,000 people, yet it has a thriving art scene. The headline in the March 22nd Jackson Patriot read, ?National Endowment of the Arts chairman calls Chelsea a 'poster child' for everything we're talking about at the NEA.? And I meant every word of it. The Purple Rose Theatre is the center of that?it?s the theater that was founded by actor and playwright Jeff Daniels. It?s been a big part of the local economy, and there?s now a first-class restaurant there, and there?re some upscale stores. This is really a great example of what we mean when we say ?Art works.? It can work in small towns as well as in big cities. And you really see how this works in a rural community when you see what?s happening in Chelsea. It?s really inspiring.
From Chelsea, we drove about 40 miles to Detroit. I was somewhat surprised to find out that Detroit?s one of the largest cities in the country in terms of land. They were saying when I was there that you could take the entire city of San Francisco, the entire city of Boston, all of Manhattan, and a good part of St. Paul and put it within the city limits of Detroit. It?s a vast place. There are 40 square miles of just vacant land, so it?s a formidable challenge in terms of urban revitalization. But there?s a thriving arts community there too, both very small local community organizations and major institutions. Amazingly none of those institutions have folded or gone under; they?ve all survived. The institutions there are incredibly resilient?that?s one of the great takeaways of this trip for me. It?s encouraging (I almost hate to use the word applied to Detroit) because if they can survive the current economy, I think they?re going to have a good future.
One of the ideas that Detroit has a handle on is adaptive reuse. We went to Mexican Town and we saw an old police station that is now an arts center. And the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit is in a space that used to be an auto dealership. We also stopped at the Taubman Design Center, which used to be a big General Motors facility. The arts organizations are really taking the lead in reusing these properties, but of course you have to have a sympathetic political leadership. They have a new mayor there, Dave Bing, and he really gets it, really understands the value of the arts in rebuilding a city.
Also very important is that Detroit has a very committed local philanthropic community. The Kresge Foundation, under Rip Rapson has really taken a lead there---along with other important Detroit foundations, like the Knight Foundation, Skillman Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan---and has really been a catalyst for urban renewal. It?s quite exciting to see. All of them have really waded in and rolled up their sleeves, and they?re trying to get something done in Detroit. It?s one of the most encouraging things about Detroit that?s happening now.
I think the takeaway from Detroit is very simple: If we?re talking about coming out of a recession, about neighborhood revitalization, urban renewal, economic development, we?re talking about the arts, period. The arts, I think, are a real catalyst for bringing back these places. Artists are great placemakers, and the arts are going to have a big role in these areas in the future.