Saturday, September 11, 2010

White Kids on Bicycles: Museums' Most Important Target Audience?


Here, in Florida, I almost feel like it's a four letter word.  Nobody wants to talk about it out loud, but lots of people ask me about the details of the city in private, with a kind of morbid curiosity.  "Are there really bears in downtown?"  "Do people really shoot raccoons and sell the meat to survive?"

When I first got back to Gainesville, I met with my advisior and he had just as many questions about the city-- albeit much more relevant and realistic ones.  I'm happy to answer them.  I don't want people to think of Detroit as some kind of scary, forbidden place full of mystery and lore.  In that meeting, we talked a lot about the arts of Detroit.  Of course, there is the DIA, the Detroit Symphony Opera, etc.  But there is also the electronic music festival, The Scarab Club, the Heidelberg Project, and other more grassroots art movements.

When I was finishing up my internship at the DIA, Larry (programming director) asked me about my likes and dislikes, in an effort to find out more about the DIA's newest target audience: 20-somethings.

My birthday last week might even push me out of the most sought-after group: early 20-somethings.

I urge my countless readers to watch ALL of the videos presented here.  Palladium Boots (for some reason...) teamed up with Johnny Knoxville, of MTV's "Jackass" fame, to create a series of three videos that spotlight the "other" side of Detroit-- you know, the side that's not eating raccoons.

Don't let Johnny Knoxville's association with "Jackass" fool you (Dad!)-- he takes a very respectful, curious, compassionate, and intelligent approach to the city. 

One segment features restaurant owner, Larry Mongo, who speaks about owning a business in Detroit.  He told a story about how he closed up his restaurant after a string of murders in the neighborhood, leaving it closed for a long period (I don't believe he specified... but it sounded like more than a month).  After being closed for so long, he said one day, a group of "200 white kids on bicycles" were outside the restaurant, asking when he would open again.

Yes, hipsters are moving into Detroit.  As Larry states, they're not taking over-- they're just filling in the gaps in much the same way that African Americans filled in the gaps when the white community left Detroit.  Now that everyone has left, the hipsters are filling in.

There is a movement brewing in Detroit.  These kids, in their late teens and early twenties, are active in the community and are passionate about bringing art and life back to Detroit.  These are the people that the museums want to target, and with good reason!

It's no wonder that Inside|Out has been such a hit!  The community is thirsty for that kind of outreach and "beautification".  I realize that projects like this are like a band-aid on a gunshot wound.  Certainly, 40 fake paintings aren't going to revitalize the city.  But, I think it will do a lot to inspire and motivate the people who see them to continue in that direction of change and regrowth.

I've touched on this before but, it has been hotly debated among museum professionals so it's worth discussing again: What is the purpose of a museum?

A lot of museum professionals believe that museums exist to collect, preserve, and display works of art.  Others argue that civic engagement is a necessary function, in addition to those listed.

I think it depends greatly on what the community needs.  In Detroit's Cultural Center, students and recent graduates of Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies are the biggest catalyst of the revitalization of that area (it's one of the fastest growing and trendiest areas of the city).  As the Palladium videos show, the young people of Detroit are motivated and willing to work on facilitating change in the city.  I think they can find a partner in the DIA. 

Detroit does not need a stoic, static building full of paintings.  It needs an active organization that can fill some of the gaps in the failing school system, provide a partner to CCS and WSU students, as they take on public art projects in the city, be a  place where Detroit residents can gather to discuss art, politics, community projects, or anything at all.  Civic engagement needs to be a major component of the DIA's purpose, as it sits in the center of a city that is desperately attempting to become re-engaged!

I'm not sure if Detroiters realize what an ally they could have in the DIA.  But if they do, I urge them to vote about it.

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