Preserving the legacy: The future of the Heidelberg Project
Last year, the Museum Studies Program at the University of Michigan hosted Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the soon-to-be-opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture., for a week of working on campus with students. Bradley Taylor, associate director of the Museum Studies Program at the University, was given one day to show Bunch around the area’s attractions — including the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
But Taylor had an agenda. He also wanted to take his guest to the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, a neighborhood art installation that Bunch had never heard of. Taylor is on the board of directors for the organization.
“We had enough time before our DIA meeting that I felt like I’d squeeze in a visit,” Taylor said.
As they turned on Heidelberg street on Detroit’s east side, Bunch had his nose buried in his phone.
“I said, ‘Lonnie, look up,’” Taylor said. “And he looked up and he saw the Heidelberg Project and he said to me in his loudest possible voice, ‘Holy shit, what is this?’”
Bunch had never seen anything like it — which makes sense, since the project is the first of its kind, created in 1986 by Detroit native Tyree Guyton. Guyton wanted to respond to the blight in his neighborhood by reorganizing the landscape to suit his own artistic vision — an enterprise that has since become a landmark of the Detroit art scene. The project, which draws an estimated 200,000 visitors a year, consists of found objects and discarded items that have been arranged around or affixed to some properties on nearly two blocks around Heidelberg Street.
“We spent an hour and a half on Heidelberg Street,” Taylor said of Bunch’s visit. “We never made it to the DIA that day.”
But in the near future, visitors to the project like Bunch won’t be able to have that same kind of experience — at least, not in the same way.
The Heidelberg Project announced Monday that it will begin a process of dismantling some of its key pieces as it morphs into a new project — Heidelberg 3.0, which the project describes as an “arts-infused community” — over the next two years.
According to a statement released by the organization, four of the houses will remain intact while other parts of the project will be dispersed among various museums and galleries throughout the city and nationwide.
Guyton wrote in a press release that the project had run its course in its current form.
“After 30 amazing years, it’s time to bring a close to this phase of the Project,” Guyton wrote. “It’s time for a change!”
Taylor, who recently curated an exhibit of Guyton’s work at U of M’s Museum of Arts, said the news of the closing came as a surprise. The exhibit, titled “The Art of Tyree Guyton: A Thirty-Year Journey,” ran from August 2015 to January 2016 in the Irving Stenn, Jr. Family Gallery.
"I thought it was going to shock a lot of people," Taylor said. “I think we’re just entering a period now that the news has entered the public. Jenenne and Tyree are hearing firsthand how other people are reacting to the news.”
Several U of M alumni, such as alum Rachel Johnston, have worked closely with the Heidelberg Project in the past. This spring she and several other University students volunteered their time to help build “The Holy Place,” an installation built on the same property that once held the “House of Soul,” one of the houses leveled by a string of arson-fueled fires that have plagued the project since 2013.
Johnston said she had heard rumors about the closing a few months back, but when the news broke she was shocked and heartbroken.
“Basically, the two shows at Michigan were sort of like his celebration of 30 years, and everyone was saying things are going to change,” Johnston said. “I spent so much of my time there, and it has been such a formative place for me, it really shaped who I am.”
Taylor, who has taught Communication Studies and Museum Studies at the University for the past 15 years, said the Heidelberg Project has been prominently featured in his classes in the past. The organization’s executive director, Jenenne Whitfield, has spoken to his students, and Taylor routinely took students to see the Project firsthand and meet with Guyton.
“One of the most important parts of the experience is encountering Tyree on site. I call him the mayor of Heidelberg street, and he’s there an awful lot, both working on the Project and greeting people,” Taylor said. “It always amazes me the number of people from the neighborhood that are there and the really huge number of visitors that are there.”
For Taylor, the Heidelberg Project was a way to get students out of the classroom to engage with a complex art installation, one that could not be fully understood out of the context of its environment.
“Visually, it’s complicated and it uses a language that doesn’t speak easily to a number of students that haven’t thought about the visual world much. Students would say it was a hoax, that it was just junk,” Taylor said. “This is a structure that takes up two city blocks in the city of Detroit. When you’re showing pictures in class it's hard to gauge the size of the thing, the scale.”
In the aftermath of the project’s announcement, two large questions have emerged — what will happen to the art, and just what exactly is Heidelberg 3.0?
According to Taylor, one new initiative, called “Preserving the Legacy”, will create a set of organizational priorities to ensure a permanent record of Guyton’s artist. The three-pronged initiative will include securing the organization’s archives, creating a visual record of news coverage, moveable material and still photography through the Google Cultural Institute and placing Guyton’s work in museums.
Though the visual stimulation caused by the sheer physicality of the installation is important to the Heidelberg Project, it is by no means the entirety of Guyton’s work. The archives — a collection of printed materials which include the drawings and scale models the artist made while planning the project — are slated to be housed at the Archives of American Arts, a free-standing organization located at the Smithsonian.
“People assume that it’s spontaneous, that there was no planning at all. Few people know that Tyree actually has a degree in architecture from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit,” Taylor said. “Everything was planned out in tremendous detail. We have drawings of what he wanted the houses to look like, he made three-dimensional models of how he wanted them to look. All of them are saved in the archives.”
As well, Taylor said a dialogue has already begun with Bunch and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, about the possibility of adding Guyton’s work to their collections. Such an addition would mean removing the art from its point of origin and inspiration — Detroit’s neighborhoods.
However, Taylor said that having Guyton’s art showcased in Washington D.C., home to both of the Smithsonian museums discussing the additions, would allow the project to expand nationwide. He noted that the project is already well-represented in Detroit with pieces at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and it’s time for the project to expand nation-wide.
“Detroiters who hold it close and consider it a part of our own need to allow the nation as a whole to have ownership of this project as well, because there are Heidelberg Streets throughout the U.S, troubled communities,” he said. “And the Heidelberg Project has always pointed optimistically to a future we can build collectively.”
Johnston, the U of M alum who has worked on Heidelberg installations, said whether or not the art should stay in Detroit is a complicated question. What she does know for sure, however, she added, is that it will be hard to replicate the project in another city.
“I’ve always known it as being so intertwined in this community, but it could be really beneficial to bring something like this somewhere else,” Johnston said. “I think bringing his art new places is definitely not a new concept, but it's going to be interesting to see. Heidelberg is so much more than just art, it’s been changing the lives of the people there. It’s so unique to Detroit and I don’t think that it could work in another place.”
While the final location of the art is still up in the air, at least one part of the new project will be in Detroit — Heidelberg 3.0.
Johnston said she is eager to learn more about Heidelberg 3.0, and to see more local artists getting a chance to display their talents in the neighborhood.
“I think what they’re trying to do is just open up the Project to whomever wants to come in,” Johnston said. “I don’t know if it’ll be each person stakes a place or a free-flowing thing. It’s going to be interesting to see how that works.”
In its statement, the Heidelberg Project said Heidelberg 3.0 will transition the installation into a “self-sustainable cultural village,” a departure from its current status as a one-man show.
Currently, the project shares a space with one other artist — Tim Burke— who has differentiated himself from the installation. Burke has been active on the property for 28 years. He owns 5 buildings in the area, and is currently in the process of rehabilitating one of the properties after an arson fire.
In the past, the project has also had difficulties negotiating the space it has occupied. In 1991 and in 1999, city officials sent in bulldozers to demolish the project.
“His work was on abandoned structures that he didn’t own,” Taylor said. “That was the city’s justification for going in and tearing stuff down.”
Taylor said the organization is interested in acquiring more land on the street in order to see through their commitment to the neighborhood, a priority of Guyton’s throughout the project.
“He knows the benefits the project has brought to the neighborhood,” Taylor said. “Lower crime rates, employment. It’s really important to them that he not turn his back to the people.”
Larry Gant, a professor of Social Work at Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design who has been a friend and ally for Guyton since 1988, echoed Taylor’s sentiments on the project’s benefits.
At U of M, Gant researches neighborhood-based arts community practice. The Heidelberg Project has been a key figure in his lessons, especially the targeted approach Guyton took to evoking social change by repurposing streets and abandoned houses with art in mind.
“These were not simply artistic whims,” Gant said. “There were reasons why he did what he did.”
Gant cited The Doll House, a notable fixture of the Project which consisted of found and donated dolls on the outside of the house, as an example.
“At that time that house was particularly known as a house where young girls were taken,” Gant said. “Sometimes by strangers on the street. They would be beaten up, raped and assaulted.”
After Guyton finished his installation on the house, there was an influx of visitors to the area, and the activity and assault stopped, Gant said.
Around the time of that installation, Gant added, there was also a small stretch of alleyway nearby used for prostitution. Once again, neighbors talked to Guyton and asked for his help. After his intervention, the area became known as “Fashion Street”, and the attention it received scared away the pimps from the neighborhood.
“His art was a real tactical and a creative response to lots and lots of problems in his neighborhood. These were all responses to community problems that were either beyond the pale or beyond the purview of an already stretched police department,” Gant said. “It was art in the service of public safety and quality conditions for neighborhood.
Johnston said that overall, when she first heard the announcement, she had been worried that the Heidelberg Project she had grown to know and love would be vanishing from the public sphere.
However, she said that with projects like Heidelberg 3.0 on the corner, she’s now optimistic about the organization’s future.
“I’m definitely very hopeful,” Johnston said. “It’s sort of bittersweet, but knowing Tyree it’s going to turn into something even cooler.”
Gant while removing some of Guyton’s pieces may sadden supporters of the Project, freeing the space up for the next generation of talent is the mark of a responsible artist — and a chance for more change to occur.
“It's not a departure, it's a transformation. It’s about what is next. What is next? He's still living in Detroit for the foreseeable future,” Gant said. “But the legacy is still there.”