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Detroit's Blueprint for the Arts

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BLUEPRINT FOR THE ARTS: Detroit executive creates an environment dedicated to culture and economic development

March 9, 2004

BY FRANK PROVENZANO

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Every so often, a bus rushes past, heading south toward the Detroit skyline a few miles away in the late-morning fog. A swirling black cloud of diesel settles amid the landscape of crumbling concrete, vacant and demolished buildings.

Breaking the urban desolation, Ric Geyer greets a visitor outside the 4-story brick building on Grand River. "What are you doing here?" he growls, and then chuckles. "That's my street voice," he says.

He wears a stylish felt hat from Henry the Hatter downtown, a mock turtleneck and a houndstooth jacket. He looks determined. Professional.

Out of place. In the heart of urban grittiness and despair Geyer, 47, is creating a blueprint to combine culture and economic development.

The idea becoming reality at 4731, Geyer's building at that address on Grand River, which has a formal-sounding name: arts incubator. He throws around other academic-sounding terms like creating capacity, self-supporting revenue stream and 21st-Century paradigm for arts entrepreneurs. He is, after all, a business consultant with an MBA who works for Deloitte, an international firm with Detroit offices, advising clients on the latest trends and marketplace strategies.

The artists with studios in the building have a simpler description of what's happening: A place where they can do their thing, mingle with other artists of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and make enough selling their work to pay the rent. "Around the city, there's a growing expectation about all the development projects prospering," says Geyer, noting the widespread anticipation leading up to the 2006 Super Bowl and flurry of development over the past few years, from General Motors moving into the Renaissance Center to new condominiums in midtown to Compuware's move last year to downtown.

"But unless people -- not just big corporations -- are taking the initiative, it's just talk."

Four years ago, Geyer paid $200,000 for the building -- an investment of his own money -- and he has put in at least another $200,000 to create a workshop for his furniture-making pastime, and a gallery.

There are other spaces in Detroit filled with artists' studios, including those in the Atlas, Pioneer and Brooklyn buildings. But unlike those spaces, 4731 aims to become a catalyst for economic development.

"We need to reprioritize who's important in the economic mix," says Colin Hubbell, who developed lofts on Canfield near Wayne State and condos on Ferry Street behind the Detroit Institute of Arts. "It's not the CEOs, but the entertainers, musicians and artists. The energy is ready to burst."

Glass artist Alice Smith moved her studio to 4731 because she was running out of room to work at home. It's where painter Charles Gibson comes early and sometimes leaves past midnight, burning incense, listening to Miles Davis, painting his trademark dramatic portraits of African-American icons, and socializing with musician friends who stop by and jam as he plays the congas.

By June, 30 artists are expected to be working in studios and sharing gallery space in the former furniture warehouse. They'll pay rent from $250 to $550, the only revenue for Geyer, who doesn't take a commission on the work they sell.

For him, it's not about making money. The idea, he says, is to help the artists make money, pay the rent and become self-sufficient.

"We all want to make this a viable place," says Victor Pytko, a painter, who also owns a Birmingham-based communications firm.

"We need each other, and have to learn to better market ourselves as artists," he says. "Something like this hasn't been done before on this scale."

The timing couldn't be better.

In the last two years, the state arts budget has been slashed in half, to $11.8 million, with most of the money going to cultural institutions and arts groups, not individual artists who must rely on their own wits to support themselves. Meanwhile, the poor economy has caused foundations, corporations and individual donors to give less money to the arts, especially when nonprofit social service organizations are in desperate need of funding.

"We're facing severe realities," says Geyer. "The arts need to shoulder the burden, and artists need to take charge of their own future."

Facing a $900-million budget deficit and dim prospects of increasing public arts funding, Gov. Jennifer Granholm is promoting collaborations between artists and developers in her "Cool Cities" initiative.

In January, Granholm appointed Geyer as a pro bono consultant to help foster economic-cultural projects between businesses and arts groups.

Last week, Geyer attended the "Create Detroit" conference at the Max M. Fisher Music Center. He was among 1,300 who heard keynote speaker Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class," implore the crowd to cultivate an atmosphere of tolerance and creativity as a means toward economic development.

"Beyond the (traditional) cultural scene there needs to be an informal street-level culture where we can see artists at work," says Florida. "If you want to know the future of Detroit, ask today's students where they'll go after graduation."

The pop-econ analysis puts new clothes on long-standing economic development concept: A city with a strong sense of place is the attraction, not necessarily the availability of industrial-related jobs.

Artists call it a "vibe." Geyer prefers "chemistry," an energetic blend of personalities, expertise and tolerance he learned 10 years ago, when he worked on the Breakthrough Project at Ford Motor Co., which brought artists and engineers together with executive decision-makers.

"We've stumbled on a model here that works," he says. "In the next two years, there could be five or six arts incubators based on our blueprint around the state."

The lofty ambition is to create 4731 as a destination point to attract artists, art lovers and developers -- along with coffee shops, restaurants, lofts and retail developments.

In addition to Geyer and Pytko, artists Jack Johnson and Terrence Kirk run the gallery and maintain the building. Neither draws a check, although Kirk is paid for his carpentry.

"At the end of the day, what makes this work is that someone has put up the money, pays the mortgage and there's support of the idea," says Johnson, a retired Army sergeant who served in the first Persian Gulf War. Johnson grew up several blocks away from the gallery.

"We're not in it for the fame," he says. "We want to destroy the myth that art doesn't sell in Detroit."

The gravel outside 4731 crunches beneath Geyer's feet. In a few months, it will be paved right up to the back lot, where a neighbor -- a woman named Ya Ya -- and her dog, Happy, keep an eye on who's coming and going.

Down the block Geyer points to what he believes are crack houses. Right next door, a rusted sports car sits abandoned alongside a broken-down flatbed truck that's listing from a heavy load of wooden boards.

"It's gritty, tough," says Geyer. "This is urban life, and many of the artists here like the rawness."

It's a long way from here to the city's entertainment district.

A world away from the tree-lined Grosse Pointe Park street where Geyer lives with his wife and six children.

In the distant shadows of Geyer's 9th-floor Deloitte corporate offices of cherry-wood paneling and granite floors overlooking the Detroit River. There, Geyer meets corporate clients and talks about capital ventures, market strategy and profitability.

Here, profits are measured in different terms.

"So many visual and musical artists have found success after leaving Detroit," he says. "We want to make some noise here so they start noticing us before we leave."

Says Pytko: "The ultimate goal is to get Detroit noticed for other things than automobiles."

Contact FRANK PROVENZANO at 313-222-6696 or [email protected]

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