To artsy outsiders looking in, Detroit has recently been touted as being comparable to The Promised Land — a place of pilgrimage for those seeking to escape the bondage of a traditional 9 to 5 and practice complete artistic freedom. But for the Motor City’s native creative class, artistic freedom comes at a cost many artists can’t afford.
“Detroit is a hard-scrabble town, and its artists have to scrabble harder to make a living and make art at the same time,” says Desiree Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and journalist. “Money means breathing room (to create).”
Enter the Kresge Foundation — a more than 90-year-old, Troy-based organization that has breathed new life into Detroit’s art community since the start of its Kresge Artist Fellowships in 2009. Annually, a total of 18 “fellows” are chosen in two broad fine arts categories to receive an unrestricted $25,000 grant and a year of professional development to do well whatever they want.
The money is seen as an investment into the city’s cultural landscape with the hope that it will eventually become organically self-sustaining. That certainly is the aspiration anyway, says George Jacobsen, Kresge Detroit program officer.
“It’s really the notion that resourcing artists and organizations with funding will provide any number of benefits to a community,” he says. “The fellowships fundamentally provide time and space.”
And how to create time and space varies for each recipient.
Creating the ‘Headspace’ to Write
“They say if you pay off your car, if you use (the money) for a baby sitter, if you use it to have a nest egg, or use it to sit on a beach, it’s all helping your creativity because you are using it for what you need to create headspace,” explains Cooper, a 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow in literary arts.
For her, the money meant time to dust off childhood dreams.
“Yeah, you might know me from my journalism,” says Cooper. “But really, all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was a very little girl was creative writing. When I saw that fellowship, I thought, ‘This is me coming out.’ ”
Last year, more than 650 applicants applied for a Kresge fellowship. It was Cooper’s third year applying before she was accepted under the category of “literary arts” (a style of brief literature). By that time, she already had her first book deal for Know the Mother, a collection of Detroit-centric short stories that delve into the black middle-class experience, due out this month.
With a new book to promote, Cooper used her grant money to hire a publicist for a press tour. But beyond currency, she says the process of applying for the Kresge Artist Fellowship was priceless.
“The application has you talk about what you are working on, who you are as an artist, what have you done,” she explains. “So to pull all of that together was just a very affirming way to put me on a path of thinking of myself more as a creative writer than anything else,” says Cooper.
“Just applying, not getting the fellowship, but applying year after year put me in the position of becoming a published writer. So even if I hadn’t gotten it (last) year, it had already been successful.”
Applications are reviewed by a panel of local and national arts professionals apropos to the year’s chosen categories (literary arts, visual arts, music, dance, etc.). 2016’s fellows will be announced in June.
The panel judges emerging artist applicants based on their ability to grow in their creative field, but there is also a considerable effort to award fellowships to artists who’ve already made substantial strides.
The list of fellowship recipients boasts veteran Detroit artists, including poet Marsha Music, visual artist Olayami Dabls (creator of the MBAD African Bead Museum), dance professor Laurie Eisenhower (of the Eisenhower Dance Ensemble), and muralist Hubert Massey.
“I think what happens is that with the fellowship, it’s not that we don’t know each other in Detroit,” says Cooper. “The fellowship helps the world know who we are. It’s like an independent arbiter of what you’re bringing to the table.”
Commitment to Community
From its inception by businessman Sebastian Kresge in 1924, the Kresge Foundation’s mission has been to “advance human progress” in Detroit, explains Jacobsen. Over the decades, the definition of that mission has transformed with the city.
“We now interpret (that mission) as expanding opportunity in America’s cities,” he says. Opportunity has crystallized into multiple programs focusing on areas of education, environment, health and human services, and, of course, arts and culture.
“We consider arts and culture integral to that mission both in a national (program) and within our Detroit program, with a focus on creating a robust arts and culture ecosystem,” says Jacobsen. “Artists themselves are integral to all of this, and we’ve chosen to support them with unrestricted grants through the Kresge Artist Fellowships and the Eminent Artist awards.”
Combined, the foundation’s investment in Kresge Artist Fellowships with the addition of its $50,000 Eminent Artist award, a lifetime achievement award for artists who’ve made a significant impact in their chosen field, will reach a cumulative $4 million with this year’s recipients.
Kresge is dedicated to expanding opportunities in cities across the country, but only in Detroit, its hometown, does it have a program specifically dedicated to revitalization.
In 2014, Kresge’s Detroit program awarded 125 grants totaling $137.8 million — a significant portion of the foundation’s $242.5 million nationwide total. It was an atypical year because of Kresge’s one-time $100 million grant to the Grand Bargain to help resolve Detroit’s bankruptcy. Last year, a more typical year, Kresge awarded more than $30 million in new grant commitments to Detroit’s revitalization.
“Kresge Arts in Detroit receives midterm and final reports from each year’s group of Kresge Artist Fellows, (and) the reports demonstrate that the $25,000 no-strings-attached fellowship awards are used in a wide variety of ways that have a substantial, positive impact on both individual artists and metro Detroit communities,” says Christina deRoos, deputy director of Kresge Arts in Detroit at the College for Creative Studies.
“Most often, fellowship funds are used to create new artistic work to be presented in metro Detroit and/or beyond,” deRoos says. In addition, fellowship awards frequently support the purchase or renovation of houses or art spaces, the start or expansion of local creative sector businesses, and/or travel for professional development opportunities or creative inspiration.
An Insider’s Guide to Inspiring Youth
Poet Terry Blackhawk, a 2013 Kresge Literary Arts Fellow and founder of the InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit Public Schools, used the money from her fellowship to take inspirational expeditions.
“We are encouraged to take care of ourselves,” she explains. “So I used some of my funds for travel, including a vacation to Hawaii and a trip to a poetry workshop in Venice, Italy.”
A seasoned educator, Blackhawk has spent 10 years leading various workshops for the Detroit Institute of Arts and founded the InsideOut Literary Arts Project while teaching creative writing in Detroit Public Schools. The recent book, To Light a Fire, (Wayne State University Press), culminates her experience teaching.
While on the subject of “inspirational expeditions,” Blackhawk says she recognizes many young Detroiters are devoid of opportunities to be inspired because of barriers created by cost.
“My role as founder and director of InsideOut Literary Arts Project has meant that I have been very involved in community groups, art groups, artistic experiences for young people, classrooms across the city, and the community of writers that is flourishing in Detroit,” says Blackhawk, explaining that money for many aspiring artists means the safety to take risks. “This kind of support helps artists to have courage, and it gives our community innovative and imaginative outlets and experiences that wouldn’t exist otherwise.”
One communal innovation outlet that is the direct result of the Kresge Artist Fellowship is the biennial Art X Detroit festival, billed as a “Kresge Arts Experience.” The festival, which happens in Midtown for several weekends, offers a chance for Kresge fellows to present their works of art in collaborative ways. At the last Art X Festival in April 2015, hundreds of local and national artists (including 36 Kresge fellows from 2013-14) participated.
Blackhawk used the festival to make a multi-sensory experience called Protea Currency. “I put together a script of poems, woven around the theme of water and a mythical female persona that I identified as ‘Protea.’ I gave the poems to a composer, Marilyn Biery, who created three beautiful songs that clarinetist Lisa Raschiatore and her trio (clarinet, piano, and flute) performed live along with soprano Carol Ambrogio Wood. (Poet and author) Leslie Reese gave a spoken word performance of two of the poems, and I read five of the others.”
In short: “Being a Kresge fellow can open a lot of doors,” says Blackhawk, who is working on her next two chapbooks (small collection of poetry), including a continuation of Protea. “It was probably one of the most rewarding artistic experiences of my life as a poet.”
Rola Nashef, a 2014 Kresge Artist Fellow in film, used the Art X festival to tell the story behind the scenes of her award-winning film Detroit Unleaded in Rola Nashef, The Director’s Cut.
“For 10 years I was really pushing this rock up a hill. I released (the film) and it was a total learning abyss. When you are making it you don’t necessarily have all this time to reflect,” she says. “So what the Kresge fellowship allowed me to do is to sit and learn for a bit.”
This meant not having to go back to her day job, which coincidentally is the premise for a webisode series Nashef is developing called Dream Yard about an artist who goes back to her day job at a mattress factory.
The story is one reflection of her new understanding of the importance of artistic development. “And how important it is to raise money for development,” says Nashef. “As artists and filmmakers, I think it’s absolutely critical. It changes the trajectory of your film, of your project. As artists we kind of blow into production. Let’s evaluate what just happened. Not just films, but teaching, developing curriculum.
“That’s the best thing about the Kresge grant,” she adds. “It trusts you. (It’s like) here you go. We love your work. We believe in your work. We know whatever you do, even if you go on vacation for a year, it’s going to be great for your work.”
As she develops her second feature film, Nadia’s House — a drama/comedy in the same vein of Detroit Unleaded focusing on four Arab-American women — Nashef says the support from institutions like Kresge encourage artists of diverse ethnic backgrounds to think outside the norms of their culture when it comes to creating art.
“It really helps that there is this really solid institution that is supporting our work. Because I see support there above me. It’s more hopeful. It just makes it more pragmatic for us and gives us more structure.”
In a majority black city like Detroit, Kresge’s support has a significant impact on African-American artists.
“What I am doing is not typical for a Detroiter,” says metalsmith Tiff Massey, a 2015 Kresge fellow in visual art. “So I know that there is some rarity within it all to be a woman and metalsmith that makes sculpture. And if you don’t have any money, the work can’t be made, especially with metal. It’s an expensive field.”
For an exhibition, Massey is creating a black and white conglomeration of mirrors and framed materials she says is reflective of the void of blackness in art, and centers on voyeurism — and the real and not real perceptions of Detroit.
“I wanted to focus on how everybody is just looking at Detroit — looking, invested, but not vested. And that’s particularly what we need, for people to be totally vested in Detroit because that’s what’s going to make a change,” Massey explains. “If you’re immersed in the arts, whether you studied or not, you know about the Kresge because they are definitely an organization that is helping facilitate artists’ dreams.”
For Massey, the dream is longevity as an artist who can afford to create in Detroit.
“Really, that’s what was the start of a lot of conversations about Detroit,” she says. “Artists were doing these projects, doing these political pieces about Detroit. It was the artists who are building residencies and taking a lot of these houses and turning them into residencies that are community oriented. But these are the people who have been here that weren’t looking for any validation. So it’s great for Kresge to realize those things and it’s good for the community. Because we’re not doing s*** if we don’t have support,” she says.
“Support, support, support … that’s what every artist needs, whether it’s fiscal (or) someone coming to see how you’re doing.”
“That’s my final answer,” she says with a laugh. “That’s what Kresge does and that’s what every artist needs.”