From “Point of Art” published in 2007, now available as a Second Edition
A couple years back the Detroit Artists Network (DAN) met to discuss ways to promote Detroit artists. The question came up: what is the “it” of Detroit art (#itofart)? Most cities have asked themselves a similar question. Is there a predominant genre or movement arising from the tremendous creative energy that is pulsing in every corner of our city? It seems a harmless enough question. After all, we are just trying to find ways to increase awareness within our community (and globally) that Detroit is home to several world-class visual artists who are producing work in search of a market to support it.
Detroit art has begun to be recognized internationally. But what is Detroit art? Clearly, we have a musical voice in Detroit with Motown and Techno. And yes, the Cass Corridor movement represents a clear, historical precedent for visual art. But what have we done lately? How might we characterize the current Detroit art scene?
The very idea of trying to define the “it” of art is so abhorrent to most artists that it came as no surprise when the conversation hit a brick wall. Artists are the last people to ask about marketing their own work, let alone the work of an entire community. That’s the reason we have galleries, reps, consultants, and in a larger context, arts councils, associations and agencies. Part of their job is to define the market. The marketing process, by definition, implies an attempt to respond to demand, to exploit a niche, i.e. making paintings with wine bottles, because wine tasting is in vogue. There is a fundamental disconnect between the artist and his or her market that inhibits him or her from dealing with marketing. I think this is as it should be.
After all, at what point does the artist cross the line between expressing his or her most personal thoughts and feelings and pandering to the lowest common denominator? I refer to one artist, who after years of pandering to the market selling “wine” art, made a dramatic turnaround and is having much more success marketing a new series of more serious art.
To a great extent, the artist must remain detached from his/ her market, especially during the conception and execution. But that doesn’t mean artists should bury their heads in the sand. The challenge for artists is to study the demographics; what groups might buy his or her work? I believe, perhaps naively, that there is a market for every work of art that is sincerely conceived, if one is willing and able to find it. Artists need to think outside the box. If your work is about cars, put your work in front of car lovers, who may not have, heretofore, considered collecting art.
Dealing with marketing is essential to the life of a professional artist. Branding a community is another issue altogether. The conversation breaks down as we turn our attention to developing a slogan or mission that attempts to characterize or somehow express the creative energy of ALL artists in any given market, like Detroit. Can it be done? Is there an “It factor” for the Detroit arts scene? There are plenty of excellent models in other regions. In the Lowcountry of South Carolina, for example, marsh scenes, painted au plein aire have a ready market. In some regions the “it of art” evolves naturally over a period of years. Other regions, like Detroit, seem to prefer ambiguity. Detroit art, it would seem, defies description.
But let’s give it a try. There seems to be a preponderance of found object art, perhaps a metaphor for the dilapidation confronting the city. There is also a lot of pop art floating around. I’ve noticed a lot of expressionistic city-scapes. But that’s the trap. The “it” of art cannot be found in any one genre. What we need is a slogan—something that says it all in one neat phrase! One slogan suggested for Detroit by Jenenne Whitfield was: “Detroit, the city of originality.” That still doesn’t get to the heart of what Detroit art is all about. How about, “Detroit, city of broken bottles?” I better stop before I get in real trouble.
We know how to break an artwork down to its visual and conceptual elements. But what is it that makes some artwork literally jump off the walls? We, as artists, are hard-pressed to define our individual “it,” let alone our collective “it.”
How then, will we ever find “it?” It’s like trying to find Kansas from Oz.—so simple yet so very difficult. Clearly, we need regular, intelligent art criticism in our media to explore the “it” of Detroit’s arts scene. Having a critic not only would generate interest in the art of Detroit it would also help highlight movements and make connections among regional art forms. Without consistent, objective criticism, Detroit collectors will continue to be left fending for themselves and buying Detroit art will remain a crapshoot.
As in most healthy art centers, Detroit needs a strong gallery system. We need to revive the Detroit Art Dealers Association (DADA). We need a comprehensive, easily accessible source for upcoming gallery information. One of DADA’s first orders of business would be to produce a brochure, listing galleries in and around Detroit, available at places like the airport. The bottom line is that the arts community needs to participate in the branding of its own market. It is a process not just of identification but of building confidence and integrity in our business practices, individually and as a community. That’s where “it” will have to start.