Aaron Foley has made himself synonymous with the city of Detroit through editing BLAC Detroit magazine and his books How To Live In Detroit Without Being a Jackass and most recently The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook. Now Foley has taken on perhaps his biggest project yet. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan contacted Foley about becoming the city’s first official “chief storyteller.” After some initial apprehension about joining the government, Foley said he couldn’t turn down a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Since taking the position within the mayor’s office, Foley has assembled a team of journalists, launched the website The Neighborhoods and will be producing cable content for the city as well.
Scott Bolohan spoke with Foley about how he will cover Detroit’s burgeoning yet still relatively unknown arts scene and the role art plays in the city today.
Scott Bolohan: How do you plan on covering arts?
Aaron Foley: We’ve only been up for a month and I’ve got a well of stories we haven’t got to yet. I interviewed a guy who documents all the murals through a photo project and he’s trying to be a liaison between some of the other bigger art communities in Detroit. We did a video with a guy who exclusively practices art in Detroit, he’s from Detroit, and decided to stay in Detroit. And then there’s a new mural that went up on 8 Mile near Livernois, it’s the Detroit as a Black Woman mural. I’ve got that guy’s contact info, I swear I’m going to call him [laughs]. But as far as covering arts, it’s something we want to do. There is art coverage in Detroit but it’s something we want to add to our coverage, too. The people I’ve hired are so plugged in to all these people doing great things that I’ll be using them as a guide. The guy we did the video interview with, [Viranel Clerard,] I had never heard of but he’s got a profile, he’s got a platform. Jeremy our videographer was like, ‘This is a guy we need,’ so I was like, ‘Go find him.’ I don’t want to say there’s a growing art scene in Detroit, but I think it’s undercovered.
SB: When you look at Detroit culture, popular music was basically invented in Detroit. But then when it comes to fine arts, Detroit doesn’t have that same cachet. Is it there but we just don’t know about it?
AF: I think it is there, but not to the extent of how big it is. On the consumer side, Detroit at one point was and still is one of the highest consumers of African-American art, period. And Detroit public schools for a long time had very strong fine-arts programs. So we’re still seeing those ripple effects. But when it comes to the creative side, we have all these different art forms, street art, graffiti, pottery art, Pewabic art. I remember interviewing an architect who was incorporating art into a house she was refurbishing. There is a lot going on. My challenge is how to get to everybody. We have such a small staff and I don’t want to miss anything. But I want to give the scene the time it deserves.
SB: So if someone pitches an art story, do you have any sort of criteria of what you are looking for?
AF: It’s a case-by-case thing. I know how to read art criticism, I know how to digest it, but I don’t know how to edit it. I don’t want to put something out there and put our stamp on it and have someone else in the art world be like, ‘This is bullshit.’
SB: I think it’s inevitable.
AF: It is. It’s a risk I’m willing to take, but because it’s so fragile and so delicate, I don’t want to end up burning any bridges because I endorsed this product or did this.
SB: Is this where the government ties in? Are you more careful because of what you get behind?
AF: I think careful is the right term. I do want to be cautious and not be like, ‘We’re not going to do this, we’re not going to do that.’ But with the art world it can be tricky. When does art become a public nuisance or something like that? It’s subjective. So what if something is offensive to one person but not another?
SB: My favorite example is when Shepard Fairey came here and did the giant mural. And then he got arrested for doing a couple of smaller things and here he is getting paid a ton of money and here he is doing his own art, and the city isn’t okay with that. There are these weird lines you are always going to be facing.
AF: I’m in one department. So the people who are in our arts are completely different from the police department and things like that. So could those lines of communication be better? Sure, but I’m not in the middle, we’re all connected but all in our own world. The Shepard Fairey thing is exactly where I’m hesitant. So I don’t want to co-sign Shepard Fairey and then he turns around and gets arrested and have him be like, ‘But you said…’
SB: Patti Smith said don’t move to New York, move to Detroit if you want to be an artist, and The New York Times has all these stories about someone from Brooklyn moving to Detroit and opening up their own art gallery. When you read these things, how do you react to that?
AF: When I read those things, my reaction is don’t assume nobody is creating art here. The baseline assumption is that there was nothing here before I came here. Know that Detroit had a very powerful art scene and still continues to do so with or without these people coming here from Brooklyn or San Francisco, and that goes for any discipline of art.
SB: In a city where there are problems with the education system, violence, and poverty, what does art mean? How do you value covering art when there are people out there struggling? How does that fit into the bigger picture of Detroit?
AF: I just want to make sure that I’m clear that what I’m doing does not mitigate crime, does not mitigate poverty or anything like that, and it’s something me and the city and all my colleagues at work fully acknowledge and are working on. But art can be a way out. It can be multiple things. One, art in schools, it all goes back to schools. Art can be a way out, it can be a form of expression to communicate their frustration or whatever is going on. It can be a career path or way to express themselves. Two, art can also be reflective of society’s ills. It goes back to how creatives express themselves in Detroit. That can be one piece of it. Third, also, I know art and commerce is a dangerous minefield, but if there was a way to bring those two together, Detroit needs commerce. If there was a way to meld those two worlds together without it getting ugly, if Detroit can be an artistic destination, what would be the side effects of that? Would that mean more commerce in Detroit? Would that mean more arts programs in the city? Would that mean kids have some sort of role model to look up to? That’s where my head is at. If we are going to have this influx of people, what can they give back to Detroit and do their part beyond the norm?
One thing is that for a long time the city was closed off to art. I don’t want to get on my soapbox for the city, but I personally think some of the attitude is starting to change. I’m not saying we’re there yet. One secret motive of mine is to show what artists in Detroit are capable of and to change the minds of some of my colleagues. You are starting to see that with the City Walls project where you are taking some of the empty walls and giving artists a chance. But that’s only step one. There’s also something to be said, we just posted something about City Walls yesterday and someone’s immediate reaction was, ‘This is gentrification.’ It’s a little bit frustrating when you have artists from Detroit creating art in their neighborhoods and it still translates to gentrification. I’m hoping that one thing we can see is that art does not necessarily precede gentrification in Detroit. While it has in many ways in many other cities, is the artists come first and then the yuppies come and everything changes. We’ve seen that happen elsewhere and there seems to be this interesting confluence of a shifting attitude toward public art in the city and what opportunities artists have in Detroit, whether they’re from here or not, to beautify some of these open spaces that we have.
SB: Would you prioritize coverage of someone who is from Detroit versus someone who is coming in from your Brooklyns or San Franciscos or wherever?
AF: Yeah, I’d like to, honestly. That’s not to mitigate someone who is not from Detroit, but if the goal is to show Detroiters what Detroiters are capable of, then yeah, there becomes some sort of priority scale.