Luis Croquer, who came from New York’s El Museo del Barrio in 2008 to be director of MOCAD, considers Detroit a seedbed of artistic opportunity. Eighteen months into his role, Croquer, who was born in El Salvador and whose father was a diplomat, reflects on his Detroit agenda.
What have been your impressions of Detroit?
That there’s a lot of change going on … perceptions from the outside [are] drastically shifting during this period to a positive interest. There’s now the possibility of this being a very interesting place of change and articulation, perhaps of new alternatives for cities.
How do you gauge the level of awareness from outside Detroit?
An enormous number of people [are] coming through Detroit. [Media interest] also has increased. We also have growing numbers of people coming to the museum, and that’s encouraging. I think people linked to creative industries are looking to Detroit as a kind of incubator for progressive ideas that are occurring because of conditions in the city. The more traditional economic publications are interested because they are perhaps watching the theater of one of the big American cities in terms of two diverging views. On the one hand, people who believe in a more linear modernist story are thinking that this is the end [of urbanization], and what will happen afterward? So there’s perhaps this kind of perverse interest. And there are other people thinking that, under duress and extreme difficulties, this is a very creative and resilient community and that what’s happening is a story that’s going to be played out in other places under similar circumstances. The rest of the country is in some ways looking to Detroit as a place of hope and not of despair.
To which polarity are you inclined?
I think that something interesting is being articulated here in the way that Detroit could be a sort of [testing] ground for experimentation and rethinking. In terms of green issues, for example, the modernist ethos was that man controlled the city as much as possible and when man became unable to maintain his environment, nature takes over. If we look at Detroit, it’s one of the greenest cities in this respect, so it presents itself as kind of a lab in which one can assess this situation.
Do you see any comparisons with some of your other posts in the world, including New York?
A lot of people say that Detroit reminds them of New York in the ’70s, but I think cities have innate qualities in their DNA. This city’s ethos created a very specific philanthropic culture and work ethic unlike what you have in other places. So I really take issue when people read Detroit as a blank slate, because it’s anything but.
How would you characterize Detroit’s identity?
Resilience is a good word, but not by itself. Detroit is not just a community of survivors. Although this is a large city in some ways, it feels sometimes like a village in the kind of familiarity and cooperation that happens here. The other aspect that I think is amazing is that there is incredible style here — natural style. It’s just a cool city.
What forces are shaping Detroit’s artistic identity?
The ground is bubbling here. There’s a lot of movement because people individually are making things happen in terms of organic growth. You see people working in a more expanded way with the city being a kind of intellectual studio. I sometimes think that some of the things that are happening here are on the edges of disciplines or on the edges of art, on the edges of architecture, on the edges of agriculture. And these are some of the most interesting, collaborative artistic phenomena that I have ever seen in an urban plan. Sometimes when you have very tough circumstances, people get so creative that they are almost living in art.
What are some of the highlights of MOCAD’s fall lineup?
Sept. 10 until Dec. 30, our focus will be about cities, people, and engagement. We have a very interesting exhibition entitled Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism that’s the first exhibition in the United States of work drawn from France’s network of Regional Contemporary Art funds. France has a very progressive governmental program of world-class regional collections that focus on the contemporary that will tour the Midwest through collaboration between MOCAD and Inova (The Institute of Visual Arts of Milwaukee) and the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. As part of the show from the French collections, we have a young German artist, Katinka Bock, based in Paris, who will be doing her first U.S. project, a site-specific piece, and we’re introducing Detroit-based artist Ben Hall, who will also be included in the show. The fall lineup will also feature a project by Martha Friedman, who was born in Detroit but who lives in New York, who is an interesting emerging artist. She will be doing a site-specific piece for us entitled Rub.
How does MOCAD’S mission re-envision Detroit’s cultural future?
We’re not solely focused on Detroit art. We have a program that integrates international, national, and local artists … because our board feels it’s important to have a more integrated approach to art. We’re not only showing art, we are promoting discussion about issues that are germane to the city. We had a panel about urban farming this season as an expanded notion of city life in relation to Belgian artist Jef Geys’ installation, Woodward Avenue. The aim … is to prepare citizens for a new future. We’re an institution committed to the notion that art can act as a powerful transformative force.