Expanding opportunities in America’s cities
Speeches

What a pleasure it is to have all of you join in this celebration. The Kresge Eminent Artist is one of the things that we at Kresge feel very strongly about, and we’re just delighted that you would share in this celebratory recognition this evening.

This is actually more about elevating the role of arts and culture in Detroit than it is about the recognition of an individual artist, because in that elevation of arts in our community, we are simultaneously revitalizing, reimagining, re-energizing our city.

I look around and note that so many faces have been with us for so long in so many different capacities.

I see Rick Rogers, whose visionary and transcendently skillful leadership at the College for Creative Studies has made it one of the nation’s premier, cutting-edge centers of innovation in arts education, design, and technological innovation – all the while partnering powerfully in the larger revival of the city. One of these days, Rick will get the full recognition that he deserves for shepherding an extraordinary institution throughout a remarkably difficult and challenging time. He is one of the great treasures of this community – so thank you, Rick.

I am also happy to see some of our partners in philanthropy who have redefined how foundations can help re-set the civic table.

I see representatives of arts and cultural organizations and institutions that help steward this city’s cultural patrimony and that have elevated the qualities of creative expression that have accompanied our community’s renewal.

I see the partners we’ve worked with in this building, which I think is just extraordinary. Years ago, I walked through this space, and I said there is no way we are ever bringing this back to serve the citizens of Detroit, but that is exactly what Sue Mosey and her colleagues at Midtown Inc., and George Stewart and his partners have done. They had the vision and tenacity to believe in the importance of converting this property into an asset that could benefit city residents rather than demolishing it for redevelopment or disfiguring it by letting it languish.

I also want to say that I am really delighted to see in the audience members of the Detroit Program of The Kresge Foundation, who advocate day-in and day-out for the centrality of the arts in shaping how we re-imagine our city and reset our aspirations.

And, of course, I see artists, art fans, art lovers, curators, critics, entrepreneurs, teachers, students – our cultural pioneers, our cultural crusaders, our cultural guardians – a collective force for the valorization of the arts as a force for the good, for the true, and for the just.

So, thank you all for joining us in this celebration of the power of art, of the possibility of community, of the promise of a unified metropolitan Detroit. This is a celebration of the cumulative impact that artists have had, continue to have and will have in shaping the essential character of this city.

More than a decade ago, we at The Kresge Foundation surveyed the landscape of Detroit and concluded that more was needed to elevate the arts to their rightful role in the city’s future: more attention; more visibility; more money. The result was a combination of all three through what we called Kresge Arts in Detroit.

We determined to invest in the operating support needs of arts organizations. We decided to launch two dozen arts fellowships a year. We recognized the need to support backbone organizations that provide support to the arts and cultural sector. We invested in lifting up extraordinary examples of eminent artists who have transformed their art form and embraced the challenge of passing on their traditions to the next generation of Detroiters.

But what we wanted to do most of all was what I’ve been talking about. We wanted to make crystal clear to public officials, private investors and anybody else whose attention we could capture that building a community of strong, vibrant, provocative artists matters in the life of a city. It actually matters a lot.

  • It matters because those artists impel us toward, and fortify, bedrock values of community tolerance, cohesion and inclusion.
  • It matters because those artists dislodge our safe and stale certitudes in favor of the unexpected and fresh by drawing us outside of ourselves and by inviting us to question the ways we see the world.
  • It matters because those artists offer up beauty and opportunity and dignity, and confront the repellant and the cruel and the unjust.
  • And it matters because those artists – in the words of the choreographer Martha Graham – are never ahead of their time. They are their time. It is just that others are behind their time.

So, over the last 10-plus years, we have recognized artists across the spectrum of their careers with Kresge Artist Fellowships, and we created a special honor, the Kresge Eminent Artist, to honor lifetimes of achievement and contribution to community.

As Christina deRoos, Kresge Arts in Detroit director, noted, we are honored to be able to celebrate the selection of nine Eminent Artists thus far.

  • We have with us the playwright Bill Harris, the poet Naomi Long Madgett, the opera impresario extraordinaire David DiChiera, the designer and textilist Ruth Adler Schnee, the harpist and music educator Patricia Terry-Ross and the photographer Leni Sinclair.
  • We’re also proud to have family representatives with for the painter and sculptor Charlies McGee, whose health didn’t permit him to be here, and family representatives for the legendary jazzman Marcus Belgrave and the photographer Bill Rauhauser, who are no longer with us, but who will always be with us.

Thank you for coming.

In the video we’ll see in just a few minutes, we’ll be able to appreciate again all that these remarkable artists have given us – in their art and beyond their art: an opera house and opera, soaring sculpture, moments frozen for eternity on film that capture the street life and cultural exuberance. They’ve given us poetry and plays, and a publishing house. They’ve animated our ideas of public space and the intimate space of our homes. They’ve given us music and they’ve mentored musicians.

Having them here is reason enough to celebrate. But we have one more reason. And that is Wendell Harrison, our 10th and newest Eminent Artist. Wendell was named – like the others – by our Kresge Arts in Detroit Advisory Council. Because you have selected so very wisely, could you raise your hands to be recognized? Thank you.

We often invoke as a figure of speech the phrase that “art moves us.” Wendell takes us beyond metaphor. He comes to us from the aesthetic of jazz, and he exemplifies the special relationship jazz has always enjoyed with motion. Think of Duke Ellington’s prime directive: “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing).” Think of Miles Davis, who refused the seductions of motion by turning his back to play.

And think of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker and his hyperkinetic bebop, and think of all the musicians who took up the challenge in his title “Chasin’ the Bird.”

One of the many who joined the chase in the 1950s was a Detroit teen named Wendell Harrison.

And Wendell has been on the move ever since.

He ran across styles and scenes through the 1960s, which for him included touring with Ray Charles alum Hank Crawford and evoking the sounds of outer space with bandleader Sun Ra.

Back in Detroit since the 1970s, Wendell has never slowed down, creating record labels, creating a magazine, presenting music, promoting music, and educating musicians. And, of course, finding time to express himself as a unique artist.

Wendell’s drive to express his individuality and encourage others to express theirs, his commitment to outreach, to contributing to community – these make him excellent company for the eminences he now joins.

Thank you.