The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (photo by an Swanson)

DETROIT — The rumors are true: Detroit’s contemporary art scene thrives. The rumors are also true: [insert standard boilerplate about Detroit’s struggles]. For my first article for Hyperallergic, I provide a brief guide to Detroit’s contemporary art scene.

For when you visit, below is a list of my top five art destinations.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

MoCAD just celebrated its fifth anniversary. MoCAD brings Detroiters historical conceptual artists, such as James Lee Byars and Lee Lozano, and it brings Detroiters established and rising stars in conceptual arts, such as Stéphani Nava, Pablo Helguera, Rivane Neuenschwander, Mike Kelley, and Martha Friedman. MoCAD is housed in a former car dealership and has more than 22,000 square feet to use for installations. Sadly, MoCAD’s energetic Director, Luis Croquer, recently decided that he would not renew his contract at MoCAD, yet MoCAD has a committed support system to ensure it will build on Luis’s successes.

A view of the Detroit Institute of Art (photo by Ian Swanson)

Detroit Institute of Arts

The DIA is over 125 years-old, but it still embraces contemporary art. It regularlly purchases artwork from contemporary artists, and it hosts contemporary lectures and installations. The DIA currently has a photography and video exhibit, Detroit Revealed: Photographs 2000-2010, that explores the various layers of this city in a more substantive manner than the various abandoned buildings of Detroit images.  Last year the DIA brought us The Neighborhood Project, which showcased the Design 99 team of Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, who are loud voices for the concept that fine art and design can add texture and invoke an important dialogue about Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Urban Art Playgrounds

There are no art projects too grand in scale or concept for Detroit. One of the more adventurous and long lasting outdoor art projects is The Heidelberg Project. This is an art space that you truly have to experience: You drive into a bad neighborhood, believe that you are lost, and then you turn the corner and are presented with an outdoor museum to the creative spirit of one resident, Tyree Guyton. Through use of his ubiquitous dots and hundred of found objects (that range from abandoned shoes to abandoned buses), he created an outdoor art exhibit in a Detroit neighborhood, which has fascinated Detroiters since 1986. While The Heidelberg Project is one of the longest lasting projects, there are discrete art events of late that embrace the concept of large scale art projects (and these art projects are constantly in the works, so it is something to keep on your radar when you visit). Last year, Matthew Barney captivated the art world elite with his KHU performance, which was a multi-site over the top performance that included the dredging up and the eventual melting down of a 1967 Chrysler Imperial. The artist group 2:1 initially brought Detroit Ice House Detroit, where they encased an abandoned hose in ice to highlight the national housing crisis, and this past year they brought us Fire House Detroit, where they staged a collaborative sound installation at a re-purposed Fire Station.

Contemporary Art Mainstays

Detroit is lucky. Its founders prepared the cultural soil well, so that ideas flourish here. Music grows here. Theatre grows here. Fine Art grows here. And there are certain mainstays of the contemporary art scene that have inspired art enthusiasts for decades. Since 1907, the Scarab Club has cultivated and attracted leading figures in the art world (it keeps an ongoing record of some of the luminaries that visit: on a beam of the second floor lounge are the signatures of Marcel Duchamp, Diego Rivera, Norman Rockwell, Julian Force, and John Sinclair, among others). Here you can discover spoken word poetry, high caliber juried shows, and studio tours of some of the top area artists, among other events. Nearby you can see juried shows that include the DAM Unmentionables show, the DAM Boxes show, the DAM Small(er) show, and the DAM Design show, among other annual and biennial shows at the Detroit Artists Market (DAM), which has influenced Detroit’s arts and culture since 1932. While the Scarab Club and DAM showcase artists that experiment with materials and subject matter, they are still the best venues to find work steeped in traditional painting techniques.

Avant-Garde Experiments

The newest movement in Detroit is experimental art venues. First, Tate Osten brought Detroit the Kunsthalle Detroit Light Museum. This Museum encourages a deeper appreciation for contemporary video work and light-based arts. It opened with a successful group exhibition that received national praise. The group exhibition included 12 large scale video installations by established artists such as Sebastian Diaz Morales, Hans Op de Beek, and Christina Lucas. Second, the 2:1 art group (Ice House and Fire House mentioned above) brought Detroit the 2:1 Gallery, which will focus on sound experiments. For its first show, 2:1 Gallery shuffled viewers listeners to the basement of the gallery, and then gallery goers sat and listened to a gifted dance troupe dance, shuffle, drag, and otherwise create a unique sensory experience.

This is just a flyby of some of the “don’t miss” venues, and I made sure to focus on the core Downtown area. In future posts I’ll highlight some of the other galleries Downtown and in Metro Detroit. But hopefully the above introduction is enough to whet your appetite.

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Colin Darke

Colin Darke is an artist and a writer based in Detroit. In describing his art, The Detroit News said Colin employs “a bold, colorful style reminiscent of the German...