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EYES ON ART IN MICHIGAN - UPPING THE CULTURAL EVOLUTION
 
(2014 - Fall Issue)

Writer: E. LISA MOSES



On my first trip to Michigan in decades, I checked out the cultural scene—and found three legendary hot spots reinvigorated by artistry of all kinds.

Packed with larger-than-life art installations, artfully fashioned cuisine and hand-crafted brews, our four-day road trip had me looking at Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids in a new light.

“The D” Roars Back

With angel investors, business and government pouring billions into the downtown core, midtown Detroit is a big deal in “America’s great comeback city.” Fresh new condos and skyscrapers rub shoulders with classics such as the lavish 1920s-era Guardian Building, which blends colourful Native American, Aztec and Arts & Crafts features into 40 storeys of brick, granite and terra cotta. Fancy new hotels are popping up next to refurbished landmarks such as the Westin Book Cadillac, where we stayed. And no end of creative cuisine rounds out the cultural scene, as we found on our guided walking tour by D:hive Detroit.

Potato pancake sandwiches served with a side of history by veteran waiter Bill Matthews at Maccabees across from the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) Museum energized us for an afternoon of touring The Heidelberg Project and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). Founded by artist Tyree Guyton, the open-air Heidelberg Project is a derelict neighbourhood whose houses and streets are a commentary on Detroit’s history and sociology. Abandoned abodes covered in vinyl records, battered toys or broken furniture speak volumes about the state of society.

In a similar vein, MOCAD houses edgy art that makes viewers stop and contemplate cultural passages. Highlights of our visit there—shortly before the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination—included installations that took viewers back to that era, reminding them of the deep social issues of the day. My favourite was a billboard of the Supremes selling white bread.

Doing Life Differently

A charming university town, Ann Arbor just gets lovelier with age. Sidewalks shaded by ancient trees are lined with cute cafés and fascinating shops. A little Latin influence is upping the creative ante with new eateries such as Lena, where Ecuadorean executive chef Gabriel Vera creates unique Latin combinations. And for Cuban street food and tropical milkshakes spiked with spirits, Frita Batidos is the place to be.

The town’s busy cultural scene includes the massive summer Art Fairs in July that attract half a million visitors. Throughout the year, visitors and locals can enjoy exhibitions at art galleries and the Ann Arbor Art Center. And in June, the Taste of Ann Arbor sets the menu for a snacking tour around town.

On our way to Grand Rapids, we detoured into East Lansing for a look at the 4,274-square-metre Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum—a work of art in its own right. Opened in 2012, it features historical collections and brings in contemporary art from around the world.

Art and Brews

The second-biggest town in Michigan, Grand Rapids has seen dramatic cultural changes over the past decade. Recent developments such as ArtPrize, an international in-your-face art competition, uniquely artful craft beer and a strong farm-to-table movement featuring innovative culinary concepts have introduced new life and vigour to this historical logging hub.

Our arrival in Grand Rapids was met with art installations everywhere—in the streets, in parks, galleries, restaurants and hotels. I could even see a light-framed sculpture in the river from my room at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. These were the prelude to the annual ArtPrize competition, which attracts artists from around the world to claim more than half a million dollars in prizes. A juried show, ArtPrize draws votes from international art experts and the public.

Grand Rapids has also gained fame as the centre of West Michigan’s craft beer universe, boasting the best microbreweries and the brightest brains. A case in point is Brewery Vivant, operating out of a former funeral home in the Cherry Street neighbourhood. Inspired by the Belgian-French family brewing style (“a pinch of this, a pinch of that”), owners Jason and Kris Spaulding consider beer-making an art form. On a larger scale, Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers, owners of Founders Brewing Co., became known for their “extreme beer”—experimental combinations of top quality. We attended the launch of their $26- million expansion, which includes an outdoor beer garden with fireplaces that stays open nine months of the year. And when I got home, I did track down some Founders at my local Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) store.

In addition to learning a new word—“beercation”—I was amused by the “mug members” movement at most breweries. Mug members are customers who buy a mug that they leave at the brewery for a year. During that time, their beer is always served in their mug, which can be etched with any message they want. After their year is up, they take it home and can buy another.

My all-too-short stay in Michigan reminded me how close the state is to my southwestern Ontario home, and how easy it is to get there. And with the continuing evolution of cultural activities and attractions, I’ll make a point of returning soon.

Travel Planner

Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing and Grand Rapids are within easy drives of each other along good highways through pleasant countryside. For more information, visit michigan.org.

 
 
 
 
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