CityLab: Artist ambassadors can help shape cities

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Performance artist Jessica Care Moore reads one of her poems from her book "Sunlight Through Bullet Holes."

Detroit — With song and dance, the Detroit Children's Choir opened the CityLab conference Monday, and the night would end at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was a show that art is important for cities, too.

More than 600 mayors and officials from cities, libraries and universities from across the globe swelled the halls of the Marriott Hotel in the Renaissance Center Monday for the first full day of the conference looking to find solutions to the challenges their communities face. Presenters took on topics such as affordable housing, unemployment and the opioid epidemic, but they also emphasized how the arts can help to rebuild a city and how that may be an untapped resource for Detroit.

"You can't build a city without arts," said Jessica Care Moore, a Detroit poet. "If you want your city to be talked about on a global stage, then you need people like me — artists — who paint, draw, write who come from cities that they are very proud of to represent."

Moore calls herself an unofficial ambassador for the city, traveling around the country and globe and sharing her poems inspired by her roots in and the history of Detroit.

Performance artist Jessica Care Moore talks with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation on the subject, "The Power of the Arts."

That concept struck Suzanne Jones, the mayor of Boulder, Colorado, a college town with many artists, though she said she was unaware of an artist that was a "Boulder artist." Jones said the arts can bring a community together.

"I think it's important to know your history so you can learn from it," she said, "and better include the many voices and ethnic tales that contribute to that city. I think communities that know their history have a better sense of self and can better face challenges."

Collaboration also is key, said Tod Machover, a professor at MIT's Media Lab. In 2015, Machover worked with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to compose "Symphony in D," which compiled sound recordings collected by Detroiters.

"I think it's really important today to make art that everybody is a part of," Machover said. "I really honestly believe if you put a problem on the table with anyone, it's not just that you find an answer together, but you'll probably find something out that's different than when you started thinking. If you do that on a larger scale with a community, to me, I think that's a different kind of art."

Moore agreed, saying cities that look to revitalize without the arts risk losing their "heartbeat and soul." Detroit, she said, can do better. Despite being influential to Motown, techno, and hip-hop music and home to world-class artistry at the Detroit Institute of Arts, it doesn't have a bureau to promote those arts.

"You know how we had an emergency manager for the city?" Moore said. "We need an emergency art manager."

She said a bureau could help promote arts in public schools and help fund writers, poets, painters and other artists who can be ambassadors for the city, draw tourists and inspire students. As a result, she said she is thinking about teaming with others to start a board for this purpose.

Many efforts already, Moore said, have been grassroots. She is working with the Detroit Public Library to invite an out-of-state artist to perform there each month and with the Detroit Pistons, she is looking to hold a poetry slam competition for students with scholarship prizes.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. said ahead of the CityLab conference that it is donating another $1 million to Eastern Market Corp. to grow food entrepreneur businesses. John Carter, the New York-based bank's market president in Michigan, said as Detroit becomes a "foodie" city, it is important to support these creative small businesses.

"We think for the city to be ultimately truly healthy, a number of areas have to flourish," Carter said. "A lot of the activity that we’ve been involved in is an attempt to create a bunch of growth entities that over time will help reposition the city into having a different type of workforce. Fifty, 60 years ago it was completely a manufacturing town supporting the automotive industry. We’re transitioning to other things now."

Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market Corp., said providing these entrepreneurial opportunities is what will help Detroit's resurgence to grow into its neighborhoods.

Ultimately, though, the arts can help to change people's perspective and provide hope for what the future can hold, which is needed for transformation to happen, said Hannah Beachler, who designed the capital city of Wakanda for Disney and Marvel's "Black Panther" movie that featured an African superhero.

"When we're talking about place, we need to talk about people," she said. "My thing now is instead of making empty futurescapes, let's make positive, hopeful futurescapes that include everybody, just like what we want to see in our future."