Opinion

A Look at Detroit’s $2.1 Million Knight Arts Grant Projects

The Detroit Science Fiction Generator, by Adrienne Maree Brown. Image via the Knight Foundation.
The Detroit Science Fiction Generator, by Adrienne Maree Brown (image via the Knight Foundation)

OAKLAND, Calif. — Amidst news of its filing for bankruptcy, Detroit is becoming ingrained in the popular imagination as a city fallen from grace. Once a giant of music and car mechanics, Detroit is now more often associated with its abandoned relics from the Fordist period, with art deco structures serving as the background for apocalyptic films and the foreground of ruin photography.

That it’s also a rapidly emerging art and technology hub is lesser known. In 2011, the Awesome Foundation received a Knight News Challenge grant to begin innovating in journalism in Detroit, and in an Atlantic feature on startups in the city, Alexis Madigral noted that “People want to be excited for Detroit. They want Clint Eastwood and Eminem to be right. They want grit to count for something in today’s economy.” Take a drive through downtown and you’ll see lots of street art and the occasional art collective.

Now, a number of artists and organizations in the city have received a $2.1 million grant from the first Detroit Knight Arts Challenge. Given to 56 projects, the grant endorses a broad array of projects, from the socially engaged to the historical, to the lively and fun. “We hope that Knight Foundation’s support will strengthen Detroit’s impressive arts scene—and with it—the fabric of this great community,” noted Knight Foundation Vice President for the Arts Denis Scholl in a press release. It’s all part of a larger investment of almost $20 million to support the arts in the city.

Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit

The projects, ranging from four-figure funding to $200,000, span interests and impacts. Many focus on the city’s rich immigrant history: Alice Alousi’s book festival will work with the Arab American National Museum to honor new books developed in support of a 2007 bombing of Baghdad’s bookseller street, and the Zimbabwe Cultural Center received a grant to connect artists in Detroit and Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, through collaborative living spaces in both cities (another residency is also being established for far-off Canadians). Others celebrate Detroit’s musical influence, with a film by Haleem “Stringz” Rasul on the famous jit dance and a series of home concerts organized by Jeff Karoub.

Many of the larger grants support education and immersive projects. The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit will establish a teen council to promote youth engagement in the arts, and Theatre Bizarre will take over Detroit’s famous Masonic Temple. One of the more elaborate projects will bring contemporary artists to 50 of Detroit’s elementary schools in a bid to integrate the arts into the city’s curricula.

The trailer for Haleem “Stringz” Rasul documentary on the jit

Known mostly for its global impact on music, from Eminem to Motown, Detroit has long been synonymous with creativity. These new projects are an exciting embrace of the city’s past and present, with eye toward its future.

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