On the floor of her new office in Detroit’s Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, next to a giant whiteboard calendar crammed with a month’s worth of meetings, Rochelle Riley has a framed photograph waiting to be hung. It captures a breathtaking, orange-splashed sunset descending on the African veldt.
“I took that photo in Kenya,” Riley says, her tone seemingly more nostalgic than boastful as she continues. “I have taken thousands of photos. I’m a painter. I’m an author. A playwright. A standup. I sing show tunes on demand.” (She also owns a small film company, Church Street Films, named for the street she grew up on in North Carolina.) “For anybody who thinks, ‘What does Rochelle know about art?’ I don’t want them to think this is a fish-out-of-water situation.”
The situation Riley is referring to is her new job as the city’s first director of arts and culture. In May, Mayor Mike Duggan appointed Riley, an award-winning journalist best-known for her 18 years as a Detroit Free Press columnist, to the role, which acts as a liaison between City Hall and Detroit’s diverse, ever-increasing multitude of prominent arts organizations. “Rochelle has incredible energy and a real passion for this work,” Duggan says. “With her connections with the community and her vision, I think she is going to help put Detroit on the map nationally from an arts and culture perspective.”
In her role, Riley is expected to work with artists, cultural organizations, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs to promote and develop the city’s creative communities. This includes finding grants, attracting talent, and simply advocating for artists. “We have not had someone to connect the city with artists and art programs in a long time,” she says. “My goal is to show creative communities that the city is going to make sure they can thrive.”
It was in March, during an informal lunch with Mayor Duggan, that the way was paved for Riley’s second act. “We talked about a lot of jobs I could do that I didn’t want to do,” recalls Riley, who says she volunteered to take a buyout from the Free Press in an effort to save the jobs of fellow employees. “I said, ‘I would very much like to work in the arts,’ and he said, ‘Well, I really need an arts and culture director.’ ”
According to Riley, her position with the city isn’t much different from the esteemed seat she held as a city columnist: She’ll act as a devoted, impassioned advocate for Detroit — with a narrower focus, of course. “Mike Duggan hired me to be a force and a change agent, to make sure people know they have somebody at City Hall who will fight for what they need,” she says. To that end, one of Riley’s first moves was to hold a series of town-hall meetings across the city this summer, where she asked artists and other residents to lay out their creative wish-lists: What kinds of art and culture do they want to see in their communities? (One neighborhood on her radar: Russell Woods, which has a rich historical and musical history and counts Diana Ross and the Supremes as former residents.) “I arrived in Detroit in 2000. I told the Free Press I wouldn’t write a column for one month, because I needed to see what the landscape was,” she says. “I treated this new assignment the same way. I’m not just going to talk to people who are running things. I’m going to talk to the people for whom things are run.”
Despite the freshness of her tenure, Riley, a longtime patron of the Detroit Institute of Arts as well as the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, has already managed to charm some of the city’s creative heavy-hitters into her corner. “We were thrilled to see her appointed the director of arts and culture,” says Omari Rush, executive director of CultureSource — an association of 150 metro Detroit art and culture organizations — as well as chair of the State of Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs. “Having that role in any city is critical to maximizing opportunities to benefit from the arts and creative expression. I expect Rochelle will excel at using her new platform, just as she has so adeptly used others to spark important progress.”
One recent night, as Riley walked to the Detroit River, on her way to read to a group of children as part of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s literacy program — you can’t begin that investment in the arts too soon — she mused that she’s got her hands in “everything the city touches” where arts and culture are concerned. And that’s a good thing. “I believe Detroit is the most creative city in America — we have more creatives and artists than anywhere else,” she says. “We’re going to let them know the city stands firmly behind them.”