May 17, 2011

Flint Public Art Project: Flint Meetings

This March, during a week-long visit to Flint, Michigan, the idea of a wide-ranging experimental public art and urbanism project that had been circulating privately during the previous year, posted publicly in January on this site, started to take on a more tangible form. In a series of conversations and meetings with residents, and business, institutional and political leaders, it became clear that there was a broad receptivity to the idea of a collaborative public art project with a group of invited artists from New York and around the country. They were excited about the idea of visiting artists and urbanists arriving this summer to team up on community-based public projects in Flint's amazing industrial ruins, renovated downtown, and historic landmarks. The main doubt seemed to be whether prominent artists would really want to come there.
Tim Herman, CEO of the Genesee Regional Chamber of Commerce, said "What can I do to help? If you want to use storefronts on Saginaw Street or lofts upstairs, just let me know." Doug Weiland, director of the Genesee County Land Bank, said there was all kinds of property all over the city we could have access to. The former McDonald Diary, in particular, had been recently closed down and was completely unprogrammed; it would be a good site to explore. 

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Gary Hartley, a retired police officer who owns two historic fire stations in the Grand Traverse neighborhood--one right on the Flint River--told me about his dream of an ice cream parlor where kids would dock their canoes and come up for ice cream and sit on benches by the restored waterfront.

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Nearby, he showed me the Indian burial ground discovered when the Genesee County Land Bank started digging foundations for infill housing. It was claimed by the Saginaw Chippewa tribe and is surrounded by a fence for a future memorial.

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The other fire station has massive open spaces on the second floor with wooden floors and views of downtown Flint that would be perfect for experimental dance and theatrical performances.

The outreach office at the University of Michigan-Flint was willing to enlist its student body in the project. Cade Surface, an interdisciplinary urban design student at U of M-Flint saw the blog post and sent a note offering to help. I met him in the Good Beans Cafe near the Grand Traverse fire station. Andrew Morton, a British U of M-Flint theater professor, was producing a site-specific production about arson based on interviews with people affected, and offered many helpful suggestions and references. 
Artistic director designate of the Flint Youth Theatre Jeremy Winchester was enthusiastic about contributing to the project and supporting in whatever way possible, including as a fiscal sponsor. John Henry, director of the Flint Institute of Arts, loved the idea immediately and wanted to be a part of it. The Flint Institute of Arts had finished a $20 million renovation by Frederick Fisher and Partners in 2006, was aggressively adding to the collection, and his son is a young sculptor based in Bushwick.
John Gazall, of Gazall Lewis Architects, director of the American Institute of Architects-Flint, and George Ananich of THA Architects showed me the boards of an architecture competition they had launched for the Genesee Towers building, a disused 19-story building that the city had been trying to demolish since 2004, at enormous expense to taxpayers. They wanted to show that the building--the tallest in Flint--could be saved and made into a great asset for the city. They had managed to draw imaginative and practical submissions from around the country to prove it.
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Gordon Young, a Flint native reporter for national magazines based in San Francisco with a blog called Flint Expats, was working on a book about the city and met with me at the Brown Sugar Cafe on his way to a meeting with the 37-year-old mayor, Dayne Walling. Young was interested in reporting on the project. Mayor Walling had already offered extremely insightful suggestions and put me in touch with a program officer for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, who was enthusiastic about the idea.

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Finally, a group of around a dozen residents, including community advocates, college professors, artists, Tim Monahan, head of the Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association, and Catie Newell, an architect teaching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, came to a meeting in an unfinished second-floor space on Saginaw Street owned by Joel Rash, a former hardcore punk show organizer who led the facade improvement program in downtown Flint. I got to meet Nayyirah Shariff, who had grown up in the suburbs, worked as a community activist, and started a baking company called Revolutionary Bread, and had been recommended as a possible local program manager. Tim Monahan wanted to bring our attention to Spencer's Funeral Home, a historic building that the city was planning on demolishing and he wanted to turn into a collective art space.

Guy Adamec, a ceramics instructor at Flint Institute of Arts, came with a group from the Buckham Gallery's board meeting, along with Margo Lakin and John Dempsey, an artist and teacher and Mott Community College. Alan Harris came on behalf of the Creative Alliance, a large group of young artists in Flint that collaborates on initiatives and productions. They spoke about their interests and concerns, how the project could potentially be of use, and what the dangers might be if it weren't done in an inclusive way.

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Not only was it clear there was a large receptive group of collaborators, there was an enormous amount already happening: studies of former factory sites commissioned, redevelopment plans for the Flint River investigated, federal funding for dam reconstruction and riverfront restoration allocated, a landmark hotel successfully converted into condos, highway overpasses remediated with streetscape improvements, a master plan for the University of Michigan-Flint's connection to the downtown area starting to be implemented, construction underway on a new all-ages show space downtown, and countless other projects initiated. Flint was not a blank slate but an immensely engaging partner that could be a great host and collaborator to visiting artists. I returned to New York to share the information with invited participants.

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