Can the Kunsthalle Detroit Bring the International Avant-Garde to America's Most Blighted City?

Can the Kunsthalle Detroit Bring the International Avant-Garde to America's Most Blighted City?
Itsounds like a "20/20" special or an inspirational Hilary Swank movie: Jadedinternational art consultant sees television news report on a poverty-strickenMidwest city and spontaneously drives there to see the physical devastation forherself; bowled over by what she finds, she packs up her New York apartment andships out in a matter of months, leaving behind everything she knows in orderto build a museum in one of the most dangerous parts of a lawless city.

This is the real-life story of Tate Osten, a Russian-born,New York-based art consultant, who left her job in 2009 to found KunsthalleDetroit, a museum of multimedia and light-based arts that completed its phasedopening to the public last week. Osten purchased the abandoned bank branch thatwould house her museum with $60,000 of her own money, selling personal jewelryto pay her expenses. The building was refurbished entirely by volunteers, oftenout-of-work locals who responded to Osten's ads on Craigslist. Sometimes, aftera long day of construction, she would drive them all home herself. "They didn'thave cars," she said by way of explanation.

But Osten seems uninterested in romanticizing the Hollywoodarc that has made her story immediately compelling to mainstream news outletslike the AP and NPR. In a conversation with ARTINFO, it's clear that she wants hermuseum to win bona-fide art-world cred based on the quality of its program rather than its appealing backstory. (It's like pulling teeth to get her to admit that she is the one-woman "private funding" that established the museum.) 

Marketed as the first museum of light-based arts in thecountry, Kunsthalle Detroit's first exhibition, "Time and Place," features workby an impressive roster of artists, including Jesper Just, William Kentridge,Hans Op de Beeck, and Bill Viola, all of whom agreed to participate for free."The purpose was to gather together a really strong roster of artists who haveshown all over the world," Osten said. "And we put them in a group show, whichis very unusual." 

Osten is one of a growing community of artists and artprofessionals drawn to Detroit for its cheap real estate, striking urban decay,and atmosphere of simmering creative energy far removed from market pressures.The trend began as early as the 1980s, when wealthy residents began fleeing thecity for the suburbs in the notorious "white flight" epidemic. The city's art scene began to morph into a less monied, more community-driven environment, best epitomized by artist Tyree Guyton's HeidelbergProject, an outdoor art installation that he launched in 1986 to attract artists and revive hisneighborhood.

More recently, the city has drawn art professionals frommore conventional cultural centers in the United States and Europe itching to maketheir mark on an emerging scene. Beginning in 2009, artists Mitch Cope and GinaReichert sold refurbished abandoned homes to artists for as little as $100 aspart of their wildly successful "Power House Project." That buyers included agroup of Dutch curators is a testament to the city's appeal to European artprofessionals, who see it as a kind of proto-Berlin — a struggling, industrialcity with the potential to become a creative hotbed.

"Berlin is what current Detroit reminds me of," agreedOsten, who lived in the German city for several years before coming to NewYork. Like Berlin two decades ago, she said, Detroit is home to great creativetalents but has struggled to overcome poverty and disunity to achieve itspotential as a legitimate arts hub. "Every little art community or every artisthere is self contained. And they think, 'We have our art community.' But we seeit from the outside as a disconnected art community," she explained. "Ourmission here is to connect all the art areas in Detroit."

Osten is currently in talks with the Contemporary ArtInstitute of Detroit to plan shared events and shuttles between the twoinstitutions. In the long run, she is working to initiate an exchange programwith Kunsthalles abroad, offering to host temporary displays of work by international artists in exchange for sending work by local Detroit artistsoverseas. She also hopes to create a biennale devoted to light arts, similar toFrankfurt's "Luminale."

How does such a Euro vision for a museum adaptto a crime-riddled neighborhood of Detroit? According to Osten, the inauguralexhibition of 12 films is inextricably linked to the spirit of the city. JespurJust's "Sirens of Chrome" and Tim White-Sobieski's "The Sound and the Fury"were both filmed locally. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Bill Viola's54-minute film "The Passing" which captures a figurealternatively emerging and sinking into the water, perhaps a metaphor for thestalled nature of the city itself. Each film speaks in some way to the city'scomplex relationship with the passage of time, said Osten. "Everyone lives alittle in the past here... Letting it go is a big problem."

Although immediate neighbors have not visited theexhibition — they may be deterred by the $5 suggested donation, according to Osten — the showhas been well received by the larger community. The neighborhood is undoubtedlydangerous: thieves raided the site last year and Osten has been told not topaint over graffiti or risk incurring the wrath of local gangs. Despite this history, the opening drew over 200, with people coming from as far as AnnArbor. Visitors "tied up their bikes at the lamppost, not afraid that the bikesmight be stolen," she said. "They come here without fear, and that's veryencouraging, because that's what most artists feel as well: No fear."