Image: Mobile Homestead in front of Mike Kelley’s Westland home, 2012. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

Elysia Borowy-Reeder, Michigan State University alumna and Executive Director for Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). As Executive Director of MOCAD, Borowy-Reeder plays an essential role in establishing the vision, goals, and strategic plans for the organization. Fulfilling MOCAD’s mission through close collaboration with key stakeholders, Borowy-Reeder tirelessly works to sustain the museum and to secure its permanent future in Detroit for generations to come.

Radically Yours in Detroit

Radically Yours in Detroit

My talk for Artadia focused on the innovative arts scene in Detroit and how MOCAD has played a significant role in Detroit’s development as a highly regarded art city. As we head toward the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 riots—or rebellion, depending on who is telling the story—we can easily see the power of art firsthand as it revitalizes a place that has been impacted by decades of poor social mobility, corruption, and unfortunate economic choices. This is a special and unique time for MOCAD, which is about to celebrate its ten-year anniversary. We have adapted a new strategic plan that makes us both more solid and more radical in our programming efforts. MOCAD wants to lead culture and support cutting-edge work happening in Detroit. We have been called the most progressive museum in the United States.

Living and working in Detroit has dramatically changed my perspective on visual art and exhibition making, and I was fascinated to see so many elements of the scene in Chicago mirroring ours in various ways. When I visited Gaylen Gerber, a brilliant Chicago artist who was recently in the Whitney Biennial, I was finally able to ask a question I had been thinking over intensely: Can one take appropriation to such an extreme degree? Gerber will often paint a monochromatic layer over another artist’s work or an ethnic artifact, thereby confronting issues of authorship, collaboration, and perception. We agreed that he was raising important questions that go beyond modernist aesthetics. Ai Weiwei has likewise “appropriated” ancient work for his own art by painting on Han dynasty urns. Ai captures the industrial world’s disconnection from making—our loss of crafts, and even of basic respect for them—in ways that make me think about how Detroit’s industrial past might play out in the postindustrial present.

I am deeply interested in work that goes beyond the gallery system. Chicago’s Temporary Services is relevant in that respect. Its cofounders, Brett Bloom and Marc Fischer, are very engaging and very resourceful. They champion public projects that are ephemeral, and that operate outside of conventional or officially sanctioned categories of public expression. My question when visiting Marc’s living-room studio was: Is this art? (It is clear that the work operates outside the gallery system, but I no longer see that as necessarily a radical stance.) This question led to an animated discussion. There are several prison advocacy groups in both Chicago and Detroit because of their high incarnation rates, and Temporary Services has created several small publications on the topic of problem solving while serving time. The intent of Temporary Services more broadly is to support and encourage anyone who finds new ways of putting their art into the world, to increase the diversity of ideas out there, and to create challenging aesthetic experiences. This type of DIY attitude is likewise very central to Detroit’s artist community and has clear applications here.

The Chicago artist Juan Angel Chavez has a studio and gallery in front of his house. He is doing very interesting work that has meaning for the regional audience as well as a broader one. He also advocates for public sculpture. For its part, MOCAD has the Mike Kelley Mobile Homestead. We consider it a public art piece that is also a domestic space in which Kelley both lived and created.

The arts scene in Detroit has hit a turning point. For decades the city seemed stuck with the label of “postindustrial cultural wasteland.” But in recent years, we seem to have achieved a certain notoriety and respect in the art world at large. Marred by decades of social immobility, Detroit has massive hurdles to confront. But it is not a cultural wasteland. From my perspective, the city’s worst-impacted years have created fertile ground for the development of entirely new artistic movements, from Cass Corridor to the birth of techno music to DIY artistic interventions. Chicago has many amazing artists, but the museums in Chicago do not champion their local talent. I believe that this is worth protesting. I hope that Chicago continues to support alternative spaces and champion the vital work happening there, as it will build in that city a greater sense of community and place.