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Turning a Rust Belt into an Artist Belt

When people talk about post-industrial cities, they seem to have this vision of desolate stretches of dystopia. Boarded-up buildings, vacant homes, abandoned nightclubs and hotels. We've all seen enough "ruin porn" to fool us into thinking that these cities are rapidly becoming ghost towns, good for the butt of sit com jokes and as playgrounds for urban explorers. But we also know that's not true. We live in the Rust Belt. We work in the Rust Belt. Dare I say, we party in the Rust Belt?

With losing everything comes having nothing to lose. Rust belt cities are poised at an advantage. The rent is cheap, the playing field is open and the ability to experiment with new models for rebuilding cities is greater here than anywhere else. It's hard to be an artist striving to make a change in New York. But in a city like Grand Rapids or Detroit, the right creative mindset can be a catalyst for a future far more interesting.

The Rust Belt to Artist Belt Conference
(April 6-7) is in its third year of operation. The past two years, it found a home in Cleveland, OH. But next week, Detroit will play host, and we're going.

"(The conferences focused) on the tools available to help artists develop their practice in rust belt cities," says Matt Clayson, director of the Creative Corridor Center. "We identified Detroit, and the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, as the entity to lead this. We've really structured the curriculum and program around the artist, the creative practitioner and the business owner, as economy change agents."

He adds, "(We're) kind of inverting it from 'what do cities offer the practitioner to what does the practitioner offer the city?'"

From having a local muralist design the inside of a new bar, to locally-sourcing furniture and textiles and the designers who create your brand and identity, there's a movement for the business sector to connect in a powerful way with the creative class.

"We don't have a design team from Seattle telling us how our Starbucks is going to look," he says. "We can use locally sourced design to tell us how the next generation of sustainable coffee shops and gathering places are going to look. You keep the money and talent here, as opposed to just chaining the hell out of the place."

And because we're not popping in franchises on every corner, and because the talent pool runs deep, we can take risks.

"The depth of the issues and challenges (in post-industrial cities) really creates an ecosystem where many bold and cutting edge solutions are being developed and applied, so you have this kind of post-industrial laboratory here that fosters this kind of dialog," he says. "It's a lab where the creative community is at the forefront of developing and applying solutions to urban devestment and community disenfranchisement."

Grand Rapids has its own share of experiments -- ArtPrize, Prospecto, GR City Points, Avenue of the Arts, Destination 1111 -- and why not? The conference may be in Detroit, but it's only a three-hour drive to learn some things that have a huge relevance to our own home.

If you want to attend the conference, you'll need to register, as registration is filling up quickly and may not be available the day of. Clayson gives a nod to the upstart panels as interesting discussions "because they're really about creating networks between mass producers and creative producers and the artists as individuals. It'll be really interesting to see the dialog between the industrial designs students we have and the Chief Strategy Officer of Volkswagen (Gregg Garrett)." Other points of interest include the role of race and culture, sustainability, fundraising and other topics crucial to developing cities. Additionally, GR's own Kevin Buist of ArtPrize is appearing as one of the speakers.

If you miss it, look for a re-cap when we return.

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.

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