In the past few years, Detroit has been nationally recognized as an ideal setting for creatives to thrive. Outstate artists are envious over the region’s affordable housing, low cost of living, cultural growth, and continual support for creators, which led to its designation as UNESCO’s first American City of Design. According to artists who call Detroit “home,” the city is the place to be for its sense of community. Local collectives are increasingly coming together to support visual artists, dancers, filmmakers, musicians, and more. In speaking with a few of them, Hour Detroit learned that strength in numbers often yields the best results.
A Decade of Dedication
Kresge Arts in Detroit has a lot to celebrate. The program, ringing in its 10th anniversary this year, has invested more than $5 million in 200 metro Detroit artists and art collectives. That longstanding commitment to the creative community, in part, makes the program unlike many others. “There are many cities that don’t have something like this, or that don’t have it for a continuing basis,” says Christina deRoos, Kresge Arts in Detroit director since 2016. “So, for [Kresge] to invest in individual artists year after year, that’s an amazing thing.”
In its early stages, the initiative awarded 18 fellowship prizes of $25,000 each to visual artists, and has since expanded to include literary and performance artists. The categories also rotate yearly. This year, the categories are live arts and film and music. In 2019, they’ll cycle back to literary and visual arts.
While The Kresge Foundation funds the fellowship program, the College for Creative Studies administers it, selecting a new group of panelists every year — three national and two local, distinguished artists — to review applicants. Award winners are chosen by panelists to reflect different backgrounds, career stages, and disciplines. Kresge Arts in Detroit also grants an annual $50,000 Eminent Artist Award, given to a creative who, among many things, has a record of high-quality work. Two $5,000 Gilda Awards, given to artists who are early in their career, are also awarded. This year, four artists received Gilda Awards in honor of the program’s anniversary.
Because the money can be spent at their discretion, many recipients use their stipends to pay off student loans, purchase supplies or studio time, or enroll in residency programs. They also participate in a yearlong professional practice program designed and delivered by Creative Many Michigan, which kicks off with an annual August retreat. During this time, the artists enjoy workshops and skill-building activities, as well as networking opportunities.
“We receive a lot of positive feedback about that part,” says deRoos, who uses midterm and final reports from the fellows to gauge how well the program is meeting their expectations. “In the end, [the artists] are probably not going to live off $25,000, but the skills that they gain from the professional development program will last.”
Naturally, the program is incredibly competitive. This year, 450 applications were submitted, and many of the alumni fellows applied several times before being selected. However, deRoos hopes that all applicants, regardless of whether they receive an award, walk away with the confidence to continue seeking support for their work.
“We always tell them, ‘Let this be your first application of the year, not your only application,’ ” she says, noting that the January deadline is a bit symbolic. “We deserve support for our work, and we won’t get it unless we ask for it.”
— Katie Friedman
For more, visit kresgeartsindetroit.org
Here to Play
When Paulina Petkoski and Samantha Bankle Schefman founded the agency Playground Detroit in 2012, they selected the name carefully, like oracles writing a prophecy. Because many of their New York City peers viewed Detroit negatively, Petkoski and Schefman wanted the company to evoke thoughts of community, collaboration, and creative freedom.
“[Playground] began as a response to the criticism that we received about Detroit,” says Petkoski, 31, who met Schefman at Groves High School in Beverly Hills in 2002. “We wanted to show inspiring people from Detroit and counteract that negativity.”
From high school, Petkoski went on to study international fashion design in Manhattan, while Schefman studied metalsmithing in Detroit. Schefman eventually moved to New York, too, and managed an art gallery. The two reunited and, in 2012, held a screening for a documentary on Detroit in Brooklyn. This event proved successful, and as interest in Detroit grew, Petkoski and Schefman returned to their hometown to draw more attention to local artists.
Schefman, also 31, says that this move was key to Playground’s success. “Because the cost of housing in New York City is so expensive, everyone spreads out. But Detroit is so small that it’s much easier to collaborate.”
In 2016, she and Petkoski raised $75,000 to open a physical space for the collective on Gratiot Avenue, to add and connect members — who specialize in art forms ranging from ceramics to collage to photography and music — to other artists and clients. In 2017, they were even approached by the studio behind the buzzed-about film Detroit to curate themed murals by Playground Detroit artists Sydney G. James, Marlo Broughton, Nic Notion, and Jacx.
By helping artists navigate insurance and even legal contracts, Petkoski and Schefman allow their artists to focus on what they do best: developing their craft. In turn, they shine a positive light on the city and fulfill the destiny they have defined for themselves.
— Katie Friedman
For more, visit playgrounddetroit.com
Stamina and Grit
After premiering a short film at SXSW and meeting with members of New York-based collective Film Fatales, Andrea Morningstar, 40, wanted to establish a similar network of support for female filmmakers in Detroit. In 2014, Morningstar, who moved to the city from Los Angeles, reached out to fellow Detroit filmmaker Jasmine Rivera, 37. During their meeting at The Ghostbar at The Whitney, the two bonded over their shared experiences and the empowerment they felt from connecting locally.
“Because Detroit isn’t a huge East or West Coast city, it’s a place where you really need to maintain a sense of community,” says Rivera, who has since co-founded the film collective Final Girls with Morningstar. Not surprising, the group still holds monthly gatherings at The Ghostbar today. “And so, it becomes a place with a very authentic and unique experience for the people who live here.”
The co-founders admit that being female filmmakers takes a lot of stamina and grit. They say, in an industry that’s largely dominated by men, women — particularly women of color — can face what feels like an epic struggle for survival. It’s no wonder why they identify as “final girls,” a term coined by film theorist Carol J. Clover to describe the trope of a sole surviving woman in slasher flicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th.
Today, their group consists of more than 40 directors, producers, and screenwriters. (2018 Kresge panelist Juanita Anderson, who serves as the area head of Media Arts and Studies at Wayne State University, is a member!) In addition to sharing equipment and hosting workshops, the members of Final Girls screen each other’s work, offer constructive criticism, and serve as producers on each other’s films. The support that they receive from each other is invaluable — and, they believe, only possible in a city like Detroit.
— Katie Friedman
For more, visit finalgirls.org
Transforming Dance Floors
Detroit’s music industry can be a bit of a boys club. Seraphine Collective, a group of feminist DJs, vocalists, writers, promoters, punk musicians, and social workers, aims to end that stigma — and the man-splaining that comes with it. “I had one male DJ come up behind the desk while I was playing, go through my record bag, pull out some records, and [say], ‘Let me play a few,’ ” says member Sophia Softky, 24. The resident of Detroit’s Northwest Goldberg neighborhood DJ’s as “Beige.” “You would never do that to a dude. That happens a lot.”
The group, which started meeting in 2014, has retired any formal structure to eliminate a hierarchy of positions. There are no presidents. There are no directors. There are only members and project leaders, who share power and the responsibility of educating marginalized groups on how music works in the rock city via community dialogues, their DIY magazine, Serazine, and hands-on workshops. Their most successful workshop taught women and gender nonconforming people how to sync separate vinyl records on a turntable. The next will teach participants how to operate a sound-board, a skill that Seraphine members say is often dominated by male sound engineers. “We try to look toward the community to find out what is needed instead of telling the community what is needed,” says member Rachel Thompson, a 33-year-old social worker living in Southwest Detroit.
As Seraphine expands, the collective aims to empower underrepresented creatives, and exemplify how working together can have a powerful impact on art. “Having met at parties and shows through music, I like to talk a lot about the transformative power of dance floors,” Thompson says. “Forming real connections at workshops, shows, and parties makes doing serious work together a lot more meaningful.”
— Connor McNeely
For more, visit seraphinecollective.org