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Museum Plants Artworks in Detroit’s Community Gardens

One of the DIA's Inside|Out installations in Brightmoor (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
One of the DIA’s Inside|Out installations in Brightmoor (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

DETROIT — It’s a quiet Sunday in Brightmoor, a northwest Detroit neighborhood that’s about as good an example as any of the city’s fall from grace — and its unofficial rebirth via urban agriculture, grassroots activism, and community-based intervention. The coming weekend will bring the third annual Sidewalk Festival to this neighborhood long abandoned by city governance, and with it 60-plus performers and hundreds of attendees. But for now Brightmoor is quiet, save for dozens of community garden spaces with names like “Ms. Gwen’s Edible Playscape” and “Char’s Butterfly Trail” literally buzzing with insect life and all the natural industry of high summer.

A piece by Oya Amakisi alongside a reproduction of Fra Angelica's work at the Jardin de los Santos (photo by Jillian Reese) (click to enlarge)
A piece by Oya Amakisi alongside a reproduction of Fra Angelica’s work at the Jardin de los Santos (photo by Jillian Reese) (click to enlarge)

Jillian Reese, community relations specialist for the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), is also here, overseeing the installation of five new pieces of the museum’s wildly successful Inside|Out program in those community gardens. She’s accompanied by Sarah Clark, from Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision (SDEV), who helped coordinate the installation of another five Inside|Out pieces in community garden spaces in Southwest Detroit this morning.

The premise of Inside|Out is simple, as Reese puts it: “One of the goals is for us to bring down the walls of the museum and install these masterworks in places that are identified by the community as resources to them.” To accomplish this, the museum workshop recreates paintings and other artworks in durable, weather-resistant formats and frames, scaled for visibility and designed to be mounted in a range of site-specific locations, such as exterior building façades or freestanding on posts. In its first year, the program played things a little safe, using the DIA’s “greatest hits” — works by van Gogh, Monet, etc — and installing them around some of Detroit’s existing landmarks, such as the iconic former train station. But now, flourishing in its sixth season, Inside|Out is pushing farther afield, appearing in new city neighborhoods like the much-beleaguered Osborn — known for street violence more than culture (a reputation that Reese would like to see changed), redefining partnerships with institutions like Wayne State University and Midtown Inc., and traveling much further out, installing in places like Grosse Ile and the five towns along the Huron River Trail. So, too, have the selections from the collection gotten more diverse and esoteric, veering away from strictly tried-and-true masterpieces to introduce more art by and about people of color.

Schumack (left) and Reese (right) pose with a reproduction of "Flowers in a Glass Vase"
Schumack (left) and Reese (right) pose with a reproduction of “Flowers in a Glass Vase”

Reese and Clark are gearing up to install “Savoy Ballroom” (1931) by Harlem Renaissance painter Reginald Marsh next to Char’s Butterfly Trail, as Riet Schumack rides up on a Jadite green cruiser. Schumack is a quiet but awesome force for change in Brightmoor. Having learned to garden from an old-school resident named Craig, Schumack has lived in the neighborhood for 15-odd years. Over that time, she has built up Neighbors Building Brightmoor to support the 50-plus greenspaces here and spearhead many other initiatives. For Schumack, the appeal of the Inside|Out installations is straightforward. “If kids don’t have access to beauty, it deprives their souls,” she says, adding quickly that beauty means different things to different people.

Indeed, Inside|Out thrives on the juxtaposition of institutional fine art with art made by the community, sending a message about the power of representation in these spaces. In the Southwest’s Jardin de los Santos, Fra Angelico’s angel from “The Annunciation” is displayed right alongside the community garden sign painted by local artist and activist Oya Amakisi. This installation is Clark’s favorite of the six she coordinated in the Southwest for this round of Inside|Out. SDEV is “looking to get more youth and family engaged in the gardens with this intersection of food and art,” she says, describing how there was an excited local resident there to meet them at each garden during the installation. The DIA has sought to partner with eager communities like the Southwest, leveraging on-the-ground organizers like Schumack and Clark to place art in locations where it will be welcomed.

Community members examine the newly installed Fante Asafo flag at the Lamphere Honey Garden
Community members examine the newly installed Fante Asafo flag at the Lamphere Honey Garden (click to enlarge)

Next up is the Lamphere Honey Garden, where we go to install a facsimile of a Fante Asafo flag — coincidentally my favorite piece at the DIA. That Asafo flags were used to maintain and celebrate a sense of native West Ghanaian identity in the face of colonial influence seems appropriate in the context of Detroit, where people fight to preserve the lives they’ve created here, as new interest in the city brings an influx of capital and investors that can be tone-deaf to the existence of vibrant culture in places that seem uninhabited. Before the flag is fully set in place, neighbors begin emerging from across the street to examine the new addition. Neighbor Bill Hickey and his wife, Billie, come hand-in-hand with their children, Reid and Leah, whom Bill refers to as “works of art themselves.”

“We put the art out there,” says Reese, who came to museum work by way of a history degree combined with an interest in social justice, “but the cool stuff happens after we leave.” The upcoming Sidewalk Festival will include a bus tour of the newly installed Inside|Out sites in Brightmoor, which completes a cycle of two-way exposure: bringing the DIA collection to Brightmoor neighbors who might not otherwise see it, and DIA members to Brightmoor, a neighborhood they might otherwise never visit. While the program was initially proposed as a potential driver for new museum traffic, Reese has witnessed it take on a life of its own outside the DIA; in Pontiac, for example, the program was so successful that the city developed its own program, Canvas Pontiac, to continue what Inside|Out had begun.

The Knight Foundation has been a major funder and supporter of the DIA’s program and, based on the success of Detroit’s Inside|Out, is funding a launch in new cities. It’s the first summer for Philadelphia and Akron, and Miami is set to participate in the fall. “We’re looking forward to seeing how Miami, a very different, tropical city, interprets this,” says Marika Lynch, from the foundation. “It’s one of the few programs that establishes a two-way connection with the community, and it’s part of a trend of long-established arts institutions (be they opera, the symphony, or a museum) trying to reach out to new audiences in new ways.”

A portrait of Craig, in the Brightmoor orchard
A portrait of Craig, in the Brightmoor orchard

We finish out the day with an installation in an orchard that’s planted in an old garden site of Craig’s, whom Schumack identifies as the “original” gardener of the neighborhood. It’s a traditional Dutch still life, “Flowers in a Glass Vase” (1704), which more or less fits into the bucolic atmosphere. But it’s not the only piece of art in the orchard. Against the back of the property, on the side of an old garage, is a portrait of Craig, rendered in black, white, and grey. Tucked away under the trees, it is not as prominent as the new, street-facing piece by Rachel Ruysch, but it provides a familiar and homegrown counterpoint to the DIA’s installation. It begs the question of how Craig in conversation with Ruysch — and Detroit’s institutions finally in conversation with long-forgotten neighborhoods and residents — might signify a beautiful change in outlook and outcomes for the city and its residents.

Works in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Inside|Out program are on view August 1–October 31 at various locations around Detroit. See the website for details and maps.

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