From street art splashed across buildings to the cool marble halls of the DIA, from tiny stages that double as someone’s living room to the splendor of the Fox, we’re sated with visual art, music, theater and dance in this city.
Despite that, many of the city’s children lack the resources to learn about the arts in any meaningful way. Detroit Public Schools have severely slashed arts funding, buffeted by the same financial storms that have rocked all districts, rich and poor. The problem is compounded by dismal test scores – arts education is the first to go in a crisis because the high-stakes tests don’t measure art skills.
But where there’s art, there’s artists, and they’re stepping up to make sure Detroit kids don’t grow up unaware of the power of the arts. Led by nonprofits with a creative approach to bringing back arts classes, these people are sharing their gifts in the classroom with eager students ready to stoke their creativity and unleash it on the world in their turn.
A primary driver of Detroit’s art scene is the College for Creative Studies. The school provides arts education to more than 4000 Detroit students each year through its Community Arts Partnerships. Detroit Public Schools, EAA schools and charters benefit, as do after-school arts programs at community and faith-based organizations. "Our mission is to work in partnership with host organizations," says Mikel Bresee, director of community partnerships for CCS. "The first thing out of our mouths isn’t 'this is what we do' it’s ‘what are you guys looking for, what do you need for the kids in your school?'"
The goal is not some lofty arm’s length experience, Bresee says. Key to their mission is to support individual and community development through the arts, which gets spurred in several ways. First, of course, the classes foster creativity and self-expression, the central principles of art. They also reinforce the ability to do group work and collaborate on a project. And finally, art frees young people to appreciate differences – art is the only subject they learn in school where one person can get a completely different result from their neighbor, and they both are right. In a city like Detroit where differences can create enormous division, teaching an appreciation for everyone’s unique perspective is all the more crucial.
"Tolerance for difference is different than an appreciation for difference," Bresee says. "In a good studio program where people are really being exposed to different approaches, you see that."
Furthermore, Bresee says, with all the talk of the creative class renaissance, if the city is going to pin its future on the creative class it ought to be willing to devote some resources into making sure the young people growing up here are able to participate in that.
Another nonprofit reaching schools that wouldn’t otherwise have art classes is Art Road, whose motto is "bringing art class back to Detroit schools." Carol Hofgartner founded and runs the nonprofit, which reaches 800 children each year at Edison Elementary and Charles H. Wright Elementary.
Art Road got its start about 15 years ago when Hofgartner, an architect by trade, was asked to speak about architecture at a career day by a friend who was teaching art at a Detroit school. She was showing them construction documents as well as drawings she’d done as a child "just like in your art class," she says she told them. "A little boy stood up and said 'Miss Carol, we don’t have art.'" So she decided to come in and volunteer teaching art to their classroom, which she did for the next several years. Then one day a little girl from another class asked to have art class for her grade, because "we're special too," Hofgartner recalls. And Art Road was born.
With help from Mercedes-Benz Financial Services, Art Road remodeled the art room and a greenhouse at Edison Elementary for use by the art classes. Volunteers from Mercedes-Benz also help volunteer in the classroom. The program uses professional artists and a curriculum created to meet the state grade level content expectations for art.
And like so much else in Detroit, a chance meeting between Hofgartner and Jenene Whitfield of the Heidelberg Project in a leadership class led to an exciting collaboration. On May 11, the Heidelberg Project is hosting "Kids In the Hood," which will showcase art from Art Road students as well as The Heidelberg Project’s ACE2 program. There will be an exhibit as well as events for children that day. It’s pretty exciting for the kids, some of whom had never used a crayon when they started with Art Road several years ago.
Hofgartner says she’s seen herself how art allows children a chance to open up and learn to express themselves in ways that go beyond coloring and pasting. "When teaching art, you’re learning a new vocabulary," Hofgartner says. "It opens up a whole other language. You know art is the very first language – a child might not be able to communicate any other way than a drawing."
Art Road’s next project is a 4000-square-foot art mobile that can fit 100 people. It could expand their reach all over Michigan – increasingly crucial as more schools cut arts classes entirely – or even nationally, Hofgartner says.
Art, of course, goes beyond the visual – theater, music and literature are all important parts of an arts education. And using all those techniques can create connections to the parts of the curriculum that show up on standardized tests in ways textbooks and lectures can’t. Matrix Theater partners with local schools and brings theater techniques to non-arts academic classes.
For example, says Amy Thomas, education and community partnering coordinator, she’s teaching a science class to seventh graders at John Paul II School. Right now, they’re focusing on genetics and attacking it in all different ways with theater techniques, from building DNA structures to writing monologues from the perspective of Gregor Mendel or another scientist who might disagree with him, and writing it all into a play.
It’s a vey effective way to get children into concepts they might otherwise find stale and boring, Thomas says. "It adds another creative element to the learning process and allows student who may not understand concepts right away," she says. "When you find ways to add something creative to it, it makes it come alive a lot better."
More than anything else, art education matters because art what makes us human, Bresee says. "What's different between a chimpanzee and a human being? We make art. Art is how we transmit culture…how we envision what the world could be."
Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelancer and a longtime contributor to Model D.
Photos by Marvin Shaouni