Exploring how art is transforming post-industrial communities

Kenn Taylor, formerly head of participation at The Tetley in Leeds, talks about his experiences in Detroit and Chicago after receiving a Jonathan Ruffer grant to research socially engaged art in the US.

In 2016, I was awarded an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant. This enabled me to visit Detroit and Chicago to research several organisations involved in socially-engaged art practice in post-industrial communities.

I’m originally from an industrial town in Merseyside and lived in Liverpool during its year as Capital of Culture in 2008 – and so the relationship between art, artists and art organisations in areas struggling with industrial decline has always been important to me. This has informed the approach I’ve taken to programming throughout my career in museums and galleries. Having followed many socially-engaged artists and projects in the UK, I also became interested in similar work going on in America.

Motor City reinvigorated

The Heidelberg Project in Detroit was started by artist Tyree Guyton in 1986; he decided to create ‘something beautiful’ in the run-down Heidelberg Street by painting bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for generations. Soon Guyton began to decorate and modify abandoned houses in the area and then the street itself using reclaimed materials. Thirty years later, the project is a world-renowned ‘total work of art’ and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.

MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, meanwhile, is an arts institution established 10 years ago in a formerly abandoned car dealership. It’s also the base of Mike Kelly’s work Mobile Homestead.

Unveiled in 2010 and funded by the UK’s Artangel, this recreation of Detroit-born Kelly’s childhood home (which is still standing and occupied) is made as a pre-fabricated building with a detachable trailer section. Kelly’s idea was that this could be transported around the city with the ground floor being a flexible community space and the basement a place for artists. Based behind MOCAD, it now functions as a dedicated space to host community content exhibitions and events; everything from local craft groups to the recent lively election debate parties.

To the Windy City

Over in Chicago, around 10 years ago, artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he’d moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 financial crash, he also bought the neighbouring property. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and filling it with cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he began to put on arts events. By 2010, he’d established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation and had rehabilitated a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects.

A few years later, Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for one dollar, providing he got the money to restore it. Amongst other things, the bank now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. Rebuild’s most recent initiative is Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists and sells products and services to help sustain the foundation’s work.

Re-imagining spaces

While all of these organisations are distinct, they are united by having a focus on the re-use of previously abandoned or underused urban space, involving communities in their activities and demonstrating a complex relationship between artist, artwork and art organisation. In the case of MOCAD, an art institution occupied an old building and with Mobile Homestead, ended up creating a semi-permanent new building as an ongoing social practice artwork. In contrast, the Heidelberg Project started out as an artwork created out of buildings and has morphed into being an institution in part. Rebuild Foundation started out as a project based around art activity in run-down properties, before growing into a full-scale neighbourhood renewal project, but one that is also an ongoing artistic experiment.

The projects are not only re-purposing and re-imagining buildings and areas in very different ways to traditional urban redevelopment schemes; they’re also highlighting the continued life, activity, creativity and culture in areas often more associated in art terms with the genre of ‘ruin porn’, that seeks to portray them as empty, tragic ruins.

Art projects like the ones I visited may be partially a product of decline, but they speak as much of the potential future of these areas as their past. They may be led by complex theories and an emotional desire for continued community life, but they create outcomes that are very much concrete: housing, artspace, crafts to sell, community facilities, and training opportunities.

The artist’s vision is key

Vital to the success of these initiatives has been a close and long-term relationship with the areas in which they’re situated. In addition, the figure of the individual artist, pursuing their vision against the odds (Guyton, Gates, Kelly) remains central in the art historical sense. This raises the question of what happens to these projects when their founder moves, or indeed passes, on.

While at Rebuild, I attended one of the weekly ‘Tea, Coffee and a Chat’ meetings led by local residents and they spoke about the positive impact the foundation has had on their neighbourhood. While artefacts from such initiatives could be kept in collections or even whole districts be preserved, the people who benefit from them are perhaps their most important legacy. Can the power of this social action also be retained by these projects in the longer-term?

How the founder artist plans for posterity will be key to this. Mike Kelly, for example, setting in stone the community use for Mobile Homestead as being part of the artwork itself has ensured the preservation of such space for ‘social sculpture’. The power in projects like this is both social and artistic, and if they can retain each aspect in the long term, they will be important parts of both future art and urban history.

Kenn Taylor was formerly head of participation at The Tetley in Leeds and now works at Artlink in Hull.

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