Map: Detroit Design Festival and the Myth of the Blank Canvas


The long and short of this post title is that artists are among the first line of gentrifiers. It is true artists often have very lower incomes, transient housing, and suffer from a lack of understanding from a majority of the public – however, most, if not all, artists come into various cities and urban settings with a great amount of privilege. Choosing to attend art school is privilege number one when others often lack the ability to pursue art at mostly expensive, private schools. The map shows that over the years the Detroit Design Festival (DDF) has become more concentrated in specific areas as well as increased the number of hosted “happenings” or events in those concentrated areas.

In Detroit you can see this blessing and curse all bound up in the idea of “doing something good” in the city’s “blank canvas” of opportunity. While artists attempt to be very self aware and well meaning, they face many of the same pitfalls of a nonprofit attempting to do the most good in areas where they have limited experience. The missing ingredient in the case of both artists and nonprofits is the lack of understanding for historical context and root causes. If you hope to do anything in Detroit, it must start with a critical perspective on the city’s history of racism, regional separation, and the need for equity. Detroit is layered with historical and cultural nuance. It is impossible to forget the history and try to start something fresh.

The Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3) which puts on the Detroit Design Festival highlights its “network” of mentors which includes only 5 minorities out of 47 members (Less than 10%). Similarly, only 30% of their Creative Ventures incubator program participants are minorities. There is a real problem in the Detroit creative community in that there is a racial disparity in regards to who gets funding. This seems especially egregious when 83% of Detroit’s population is Black or African American. There are countless creative programs across the city being run by Black residents and minorities, but the question remains in who gets the funding and support to carry out their artistic work.

A while back I wrote a piece, Detroit is Not Your Blank Canvas, looking at the impact of art on neighborhoods and what I felt was a need for artists to be critical in understanding their own privilege and engaging people who are already here. This was a final question from my critique on the “blank canvas” myth:

“Art can no longer be ignored as an economic impactor, but if art can build vibrancy and revive communities it begs the question: for whom does art revive communities?”

2 thoughts on “Map: Detroit Design Festival and the Myth of the Blank Canvas

  1. Pingback: Blight: “The unbearable municipal burden” | Rust Belt Anthro

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