Berman: Creating artistic buzz out of dormant Detroit clay
When the Detroit Creative Corridor Center was launched five years ago, its name was aspirational: more hope than reality. There were smatterings of “creative” in the corridor, which still went by the name “Cass.” But there was no critical mass of professionals working as artists, artisans, writers and designers in 2010.
That year, interior designer Patrick Thompson was working out of his Royal Oak basement, trying to muster respect for his talent, while he designed modest kitchens and bathrooms. Matthew Clayson, director of the new Detroit Creative Corridor Center, hatched a three-year plan for the fledgling nonprofit, including a “Detroit Design Festival,” opening an office in the renovated Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education on Milwaukee; the building was largely vacant.
DC3, as it was called, was sponsored by Business Leaders of Michigan and the College for Creative Studies — a pipeline for artsy development conceived during some of Detroit’s darkest days to attract a creative buzz between Midtown and downtown. And it has, by just about any standard, worked.
Tuesday marks the opening of the fifth Detroit Design Festival, an event that has swelled to 500 exhibitors, including designers and visitors from across the country and Europe. It’s a dizzying week-long series of events that focus attention on Detroit designers, while drawing thousands of visitors from across the country. And it’s one marker of success for the strategy, hatched by philanthropy and business, to deliberately nurture fledgling design and arts businesses, creating energy and attracting new business.
Rick Rogers, CEO of the College for Creative Studies, has witnessed a swift transformation, especially in perception. “Detroit has become an attraction; it’s known as a place of creative vitality across the country, that creative people want to be part of.”
Foundations, especially Kresge and Knight, have poured resources into nurturing artists and organizations, including DC3. By sponsoring artists through fellowships and grants, Clayson says, the philanthropies focused a spotlight on local talent — building presence and a sense of confidence that spilled into other arenas.
“We had a vision of Detroit as a globally recognized center of design, creativity and innovation,” recalls Clayson, who gets credit for connecting Shinola’s founder with the Taubman Center space, a match that sparked instant change for Detroit’s image. As the Shinola executives struggled to find space, Clayson connected them with CCS and 150,000 square feet of potential watch-building space.
“If that was the only thing they’d done — bring in Shinola and 300 jobs — that would be a lot. Because Shinola has done so much to help the image of Detroit,” Rogers says.
Clayson and former chief operating officer Ellen Schneider, now DC3 acting director, helped steer clusters of advertising agencies, graphic design and interior design businesses into Grand Circus Park. Some 45 small business owners got hands-on help, from learning how to price their work to getting Midtown space at affordable rates. Patrick Thompson, 37, moved his design business into the Taubman Center, where he got mentoring, graphic design help and an intangible asset: confidence.
“For me, the confidence of having a work space outside my home transferred to everything I do: It affects the way you carry yourself with clients, the way you think about your work,” he said. “I hired my first two employees while I was there.”
This year, Thompson opened his own studio with six employees in the Auburn, a Midtown building. It’s a location that draws suburban clients who want to connect with the city’s creative energy. “They love coming downtown because it’s become a destination to eat and shop,” says Thompson. Now designing a 66,000-square-foot hotel space in Corktown, he sees his success as part of the city’s arts and design revival. “It’s basically a dream come true,” he says.
Schneider, the acting director, says Tuesday’s festival will premiere a video making the case for officially crowning Detroit as a global city of design — a designation she hopes will be adopted by UNESCO, the United Nations organization that designates “creative cities” around the world. The design festival, a five-day blur of happenings, panels and art events, is billed as “North America’s festival of independent design.”
It’s a real thing, you see, not a vision, not a dream.
For more information: www.detroitdesignfestival.com/