Discovering the Unexpected Art of Detroit

February 23, 2016 by

Art & Museums, North America, Places to Go, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Detroit has been in the news over the past several years for what many might say are all the wrong reasons. More recently, the city has been appearing in the travel news as the comeback kid, a destination for people who prefer getting away from the same itinerary everyone else seems to be planning. Detroit absolutely is that place – a busy city with a difficult past and a promising future. And while you’re there, you should really check out the art scene.

Yes, really.

Detroit has a long history of remarkable art (see the first couple of entries on this list below, which date back to the early part of the 20th century), but the city’s more recent troubled times have given rise to an entrepreneurial artistic spirit in evidence everywhere you look around the city today.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of fabulous art worth visiting in Detroit, but it’s a great start for enthusiasts headed to the Motor City.

Detroit Institute of Arts

There is simply no discussion of art in Detroit that doesn’t include the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA is home to an impressive permanent collection of more than 60,000 pieces – including paintings by Picasso and van Gogh as well as a fantastic section dedicated to African-American art – but you can’t visit the DIA without passing through the cathedral-like entry which is covered in the murals of Diego Rivera.

Diego Rivera's frescoes at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: Jessica Spiegel.

Diego Rivera’s frescoes at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: Jessica Spiegel.

Rivera painted the “Detroit Industry” frescoes in just under a year, from 1932 to1933. They overwhelm with their size and color. Rivera was apparently taken with Detroit (his wife, Frida Kahlo, decidedly less so), and painted easily recognizable city officials into the mural.

It is absolutely worth having a guide explain the murals to you (there’s a free iPad app you can download from the museum’s website before you go), though simply sitting in awe of the gorgeous art is an acceptable way to spend your time, too.

The Guardian Building

The Guardian Building. Photo: Jessica Spiegel.

The Guardian Building. Photo: Jessica Spiegel.

Many of downtown Detroit’s skyscrapers are historic, but few attract the eye so well as the Guardian Building. An Art Deco masterpiece, the building was constructed in 1928 and its interior lavishly decorated – so much so that it’s long been called the “Cathedral of Finance.”

The main part of the ground floor is a Bank of America, which doesn’t sound particularly intriguing, but go inside even if you don’t have any banking to do. The soaring arched ceiling is covered in colorful tiles and murals, with Aztec designs and Italian marble. There is nothing sedate or boring about this bank, which is why it’s such a popular stop on any tour of Detroit.

Z Garage

Suggesting art lovers visit a parking garage sounds weird, but the Z Garage is no ordinary parking garage. Every floor of the 10-storey structure in downtown Detroit features huge murals by well-known street artists from around the world, making it a completely free gallery of some of the trendiest art.

“The Z,” as it’s now known, contains the work of 27 different artists, including Dabs Myla, Interesni Kazki, Cyrcle, How and Nosm, Sam Friedman, Maya Hayuk, Smash 137, Pose, Revok and more.

Not only that, the two buildings that make up the garage are connected by an alley, which is now part of the whole art experience. The alley is called “The Belt,” and serves as a space for pop-up art exhibits.

Man in the City

Man in the City. Photo: Jessica Spiegel.

Man in the City. Photo: Jessica Spiegel.

Art doesn’t have to hang in a gallery to delight, as evidenced by bright orange silhouettes all around Detroit. The metal men are known as Man in the City, by artist John Suave, and they’re all painted bright orange – making them impossible to miss.

There are 30 Man in the City sculptures throughout Detroit, perched on rooftops overlooking sidewalks and highways, and they’re part of an art installation which is also a fundraiser for children’s art programs in the city.

The Heidelberg Project

The Heidelberg Project dates back to 1986, well before Detroit was the new up-and-coming darling of the travel world, the brainchild of local artist Tyree Guyton. It spans about two blocks on the East Side of Detroit on Heidelberg Street.

Guyton began by painting colorful circles on houses in the neighborhood, distressed by the level of decay after the 1967 riots. Over the years, the dots were joined by found items (also often colorfully painted) attached to the housefronts.

Today, the Heidelberg Project is a public art museum which has grown to include an amphitheater, community garden and more. It’s a community art project that has survived the test of time.

Shepard Fairey Mural

More and more street artists are becoming famous, but few have reached the levels of Shepard Fairey – the artist behind that unforgettable “Hope” poster of Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign.

Fairey has left his mark on Detroit now, too, with a 185-foot mural on the side of One Campus Martius.

Jessica Spiegel

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