Heidelberg Project names new leader, board members

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The Heidelberg Project has new leadership as the group pursues overhauling the legendary outdoor art exhibit on Detroit’s east side, officials announced Wednesday.

Artist Tyree Guyton, who launched the project in 1986 with his grandfather Sam Mackey, last year announced he would start the long process of dismantling the outdoor installation in the two-block area.

A $100,000 capital campaign started in October for renovating one of the two original houses remaining. At one point, the exhibit included multiple houses, where Guyton’s childhood neighborhood near Mount Elliott and Mack served as the backdrop.

As Guyton pursues other exhibitions, executive director Jenenne Whitfield, Guyton’s wife, becomes president and CEO, overseeing the project’s evolution into Heidelberg 3.0, which officials said would “open doors for new ideas and new energy while keeping art, diversity and equity at the forefront.”

“The time is right for Jenenne to lead the Heidelberg Project and take this organization to the next level,” Guyton said in a statement. “Community organizing, building local and national partnerships, and helping to build a dynamic board are just a few of Jenenne’s strengths that make her the best candidate for the job. I look forward to watching our vision of creating a self-sustaining cultural village unfold.”

Guyton, a lifetime member of the board of directors, is expected to remain artistic director through the transition to Heidelberg 3.0 when the art has been taken down, project spokesman Dan Lijana said Wednesday.

Whitfield, a Detroit native, spent 23 years as the executive director after a commercial banking career.

“Tyree has given 30 years of his life to this project and to Detroit,” she said. “I’m honored that he has entrusted me to go full throttle to build on the foundation that he has so passionately and persistently laid. We’re going to be a model for how a neighborhood can rebuild itself from the inside out and a destination where a new generation of artists and innovators go for inspiration.”

Since its inception, the Heidelberg Project’s colorful, whimsical offerings have earned international renown. As many as 200,000 people visit annually from around the globe.

But the venture has also faced troubles, including about a dozen suspicious fires dating to spring 2013, demolition attempts and threats from the city to seize property for unpaid taxes.

The capital campaign, launched last fall, aimed to raise money to update the Numbers House, which is on a fire-plagued block where arsonists torched six houses Guyton transformed into art objects in recent years.

The numeral-covered white clapboard structure is part of the project as the last owner requested.

Last fall, Whitfield said the project could eventually evolve into an arts-focused neighborhood.

In her first executive action, Whitfield on Wednesday welcomed four members to the Heidelberg Project’s board of directors: Jules Polk, who serves on the board of directors or Cerf+, The Artists Safety Net; Roula David of Inner State Gallery; Candace Jackson, a cultural arts and economic development practitioner who founded CJAM; and Julie Egan, founder/CEO of Detroit-based Salonniere.

“Jules Polk, Roula David, Candace Jackson and Julie Egan are leaders in the art community and fierce advocates for artists, neighborhoods and non-profits,” Whitfield said Wednesday.