Why artists are finding a creative haven in Detroit

The city’s affordable rent, space, and diverse art scene have been idyllic for artists like Kearra Amaya Gopee and Pamela Council.

Detroit has been called “America’s Berlin.” Which I didn’t expect of a city located in the bottom right hand corner of a mercurial swing state (Michigan voted for Trump in 2016). But when I visited Detroit, the parallels between the cities were fast apparent. They’ve each suffered separate, but equally debilitating, economic crisis, their architectures belong to bygone eras, and techno music reigns supreme at nightclubs and warehouse parties.

But the strongest connection “The Motor City” has to Berlin is its DIY art culture. The city has become a playground for creators of marginalized backgrounds, due in large part to its affordable rent (“affordable” when compared to the astronomical rents of art capitals like Los Angeles and New York) and steadily increasing gallery spaces. Each year, a larger exodus of creatives flood the metroplex. Whenever I asked curators and museum heads where they were from, I received the same answer over and over: New York.

All of this has the art world asking, “Is Detroit the New New York?”

Artist Scott Campbell made the decision to leave New York behind for Detroit after visiting the city in 2015. “I found myself ready for a move,” he says, standing inside his spacious studio. Large sculptures-in-the-making fill the room. It’s hard to imagine Scott having the same kind of space, or access to cheap, raw materials, in a NYC studio.

“Detroit is interesting in the sense that everyone is building something here,” says Scott. “In New York, I felt like I had to figure out how to fit into an existing system.” He says Detroit also appealed to him because of its diversity. The city’s population is 83% Black — the largest in all of America. “It’s nice being able to go into, say, a Home Depot and feel like I’m one of many.”

The complicated history of Detroit can make the once-forgotten city feel more accessible to others. Kearra Amaya Gopee, an artist originally from Trinidad, says spending three months in Detroit for her Red Bull Arts residency felt more familiar at times, surprisingly, than New York. “Detroiters and Caribbeans have a lot of similarities in terms of being read as dystopian. A place after the fallout, after the capital has left the area… So I felt myself being seen and understood in interesting ways here. I don’t feel adrift in Detroit as I do in New York sometimes.”

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