Theater community responds with suggestions on how to make Detroit ‘cool’ in 2004 and beyond
“How can we create ‘cool’ in Michigan?”
That’s the million-dollar question Governor Jennifer M. Granholm asked an energized audience at the Dec. 11 Creating Cool conference sponsored by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA).
In a year that has seen the state’s arts budget slashed by half – and a significant drop in funds granted to cultural groups by the private and business sectors, as well – many local arts administrators earlier questioned the seriousness of the governor’s commitment to Michigan’s always struggling arts community.
For the 1,400 people attending the Lansing conference, however, the governor’s position became quite clear – and extremely well received.
“This is about empowering local communities to realize they can create for themselves a dynamic, diverse, artistic environment,” she told the cheering crowd. “Creativity is a grassroots issue, and I think a lot of times communities, which are run by politicians who are often very uncool – we don’t have a whole lot creative juices in us many times – we are often forced into very mainstream thinking, and that stifles creativity.”
But what Granholm made quite clear was this: Don’t expect the state to help pay the bills for the communities’ efforts to make themselves cool.
“I would love to say that we have tons of money to support creative endeavors at the local level – we just don’t at this point.”
The grassroots speak
So what IS a “cool city” – and what can communities like Detroit do to reinvent themselves as cool and inviting places to live, work and visit?
Those are a few of the questions BTL asked executives of southeast Michigan’s professional theater community in a survey this past November, and although everyone who responded seemingly supports the governor’s overall concept, many believe it can’t be achieved by only those working at the grassroots level; the government at both the state and local branches must also play an important role in the creation of “cool cities.”
“If there is commitment from the Governor to create sustainable cool cities, then the state needs to relax taxation on small urban businesses,” stated Jeff Croff, artistic director of Lansing’s Icarus Falling. “It needs to encourage entrepreneurial initiatives and to facilitate partnerships between the arts and business.”
In a similar vein, BoarsHead Theater’s recently named Managing Director, Kevin Kruse, added, “The state must provide incentives to the cities to assist them in their pursuit of ‘cool’ status. Maybe that simply comes in the form of resource expertise or rethinking certain laws that stand in the way of cities reinventing themselves, but the state must play its part.”
The government must also fix what’s already broken.
“The infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate, abandoned buildings blight neighborhoods and citizens don’t feel safe,” said Barbara Busby, fiscal officer of the Detroit Repertory Theatre. “Outsiders and suburbanites perceive the city as being dangerous. Streetlights operating everywhere might help, [as would] police visibility at other than major events.”
And as a Detroit resident, Mark G. Flanders of the Flanders Theater Company believes a better school system in Detroit is necessary before his city can become “cool.”
Just what IS a ‘cool’ city?
“Cool” is in the eyes of the beholder, of course, but local theater executives have a fairly consistent idea of what’s “cool” – and what’s not!
“In a ‘cool city’ you can see a different top quality play every night of the week. You can eat out in a different restaurant and enjoy a gallery experience each day of the month with out repeating yourself. Theater is well funded, promoted and attended in a ‘cool city,'” offered Oliver Pookrum, president of the African Renaissance Theater Company of Detroit.
In other words, according to Todd A. Heywood, co-founding artistic director of Lansing’s Sunsets with Shakespeare and Outing Productions, it’s “a place that is diversified, with activity 24/7, of a variety of choices and options; a place that values safety,community and education over divisions.”
In fact, it’s a city like San Diego – which BoarsHead’s Kruse cited as the quintessential example of a “cool city” – a safe, clean and bright community capable of supporting a diverse downtown resident population with plenty to do, easy parking and easy highway access.
And how do you pay for it?
Creating a “cool city” is easier said than done, of course, especially in a tight economy – and a governor that has already warned her constituents to look elsewhere for funds.
So how should groups go about getting money to fund their various projects?
C. Kurt Dewhurst, MCACA chairman, believes many within the the arts community have already begun solving that puzzle for themselves.
“With budget cuts, one of the things you’re seeing with the cultural sector is that they are getting more involved in their local communities in deeper and richer ways,” Dewhurst noted. “Frankly, we need to be looking at some bigger picture strategies rather than just managing the crisis. We need to forge new partnerships across government and with cities in new ways than we’ve done before. Clearly, we’re hoping to build more alliances there to sustain this kind of activity, even during times of economic downturn.”
Ultimately, however, the question that needs to be asked is this: What will it take for Detroit to become a “cool city?”
To some, it’s the pink elephant standing in the middle of the room that no one wants to acknowledge.
“It will take a less stratified racial climate and a better appreciation of the local arts and cultural community by residents,” admitted Gary Anderson, producing artistic director of Detroit’s Plowshares Theatre Company. “The race issue is the biggest obstacle, because it allows too many of us to not see our shared fate. Detroit has some of the elements, but what is needed to inspire more development is a better PR campaign and a reinvestment in the creativity of current citizens in order to attract new residents.”