The Heidelberg Project: 35 years later and still evolving

When the outdoor art installation known as The Heidelberg Project began, it was meant to be a political protest. Creator Tyree Guyton was protesting about how the neighborhood was allowed to deteriorate after the 1967 Detroit Rebellion, and continued to do so, particularly through the 1980's crack epidemic. 

35 years later, he is still protesting through art. 

In an interview with Guyton and Jenenne Whitfield, president and CEO of The Heidelberg Project (HP), Model D explores the legacy of the initiative, its current and future endeavors, and why art is essential to the future of prosperity in Detroit.

“Heidelberg has had many lives, like a cat, certainly iterations and basically all pretty much dictated by outside sources,” says Whitfield. “From 1986, when we started to 1991 is an era that was defined by the first demolition. Then from 1992 to 1999, was an era — that was my era, I came in in 1993. And, then from 2000 to 2014 — another era, which was pretty much defined by fires. So Heidelberg, is this animal, I say, this thing that is always changing. And it's always [...] rooted in Detroit.”

“It has really been the catalyst that has jumped started the arts renaissance in Detroit.”

“Heidelberg has also taught us that when you have an idea, you have a strategic plan, a direction, and then you think that's where you're going — then, boom, you find that you go in different directions all the time. But how beautiful has that process been? It's like this spontaneous, living thing.” 

Heidelberg has become larger than just the initial project. The organization also directs a camp for kids, trains university students with the Heidelberg Leadership Project, and is part owner of the new nightclub/art gallery Spotlite. 

Just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Heidelberg Project won an award in Berlin, Germany, for best cultural activation.

“We were up against a museum in Toronto, and a museum in South Africa,” Whitfield says. “So that just helps us in the city to know that the art that has been going on for 35 years in Detroit has a life way beyond just Detroit. And that's important for this international city.” 

Whitfield is hopeful that the creation of a Director of Arts, Culture, and Entrepreneurship role within the City of Detroit, led by Rochelle Riley, means that the city will “really embrace the arts here and doesn't really see it as the economic engine that it is.”

As a public art installation, Heidelberg has been a tourism driver for years — and it is still evolving. In celebration of the 35th anniversary, Whitfield and Guyton, who are married, and the supporters and staff of Heidelberg launched a project called Have a Seat, which aims to install seating throughout the installation. The sponsored benches and tables are intended to give people somewhere to enjoy the space, and stay longer. 

To Detroit visitors who haven't visited the project in a long time, Whitfield says “go get your dose of Heidelberg, because when you leave, you feel cool."

"People are drawn to just this [art] in a way that is beyond the physical. It is just what you feel, the conversations you have, and the fact that it's really about empowering the human spirit to do whatever you do in your creative world.”

Just down the street from their office, Guyton is outside in the installation arranging art and greeting visitors, including a couple from Los Angeles who are honored to meet the creator in person. The legendary artist agrees to take selfies on the scooters that a community partner installed, and listens to visitors' hopes and dreams.

“I’m making peace,” Guyton says in response to being asked how he is doing. “I'm older. I've done some [great things]. So I'm gonna trust that it takes me where I need to go next."

Guyton revels in the spirits of ancestors. His family has owned the most iconic house in the art project, The Dotty House, for generations. His great-grandmother and most of his family lived in it.

"I feel grandma's spirit greatly in my mind," he says, adding that the spirits of other great Detroit artists like Charles McGee also dwell on the street. 

Speaking about his life’s work, he says he created the project as "medicine to this community."

"So I put it out here for the world to see and I'm starting here at home. I'm saying to the community, saying to my neighbors — it's our time. Right? Well, it’s a mission. We've always been on a mission but now we're more focused.” 

One mission is to spread the idea of "Heidelbergology", a phrase that Guyton and Whitfield trademarked which, in essence, means to study found material and people and then incorporate that back into the fabric and the structure of a community. 

Glancing around the unusual art project, erected in the middle of a Detroit neighborhood that has been through so many iterations in 35 years and remains relevant and necessary, it seems Guyton is right. Heidelbergology is indeed a part of Detroit. 
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Read more articles by Biba Adams.

Biba Adams is a regular contributor and project editor for Model D. Formally Model D's Editor at Large, she is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.