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Special Issue: Art Intermediation in the United States since 1945: Concepts, Scope, Spaces Edited by Monica Manolescu and Christine Zumello

“Out With the Galleries, Out with the Sellouts:” Arts Organizations and Real Estate Investment in Los Angeles and Detroit

Aaron Shkuda


Activists in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood have targeted art galleries as a way to protest the area’s gentrification, while Detroit artist Tyree Guyton has drawn praise for his use of connections with local art galleries to broaden the economic impact of his Heidelberg Project. Why were art galleries criticized for their role in gentrifying Los Angeles, while an arts organization in Detroit was lauded for the way it directed capital investment into a disinvested area of the city? To fully understand the relationship between art and capital in an urban context, one must analyze the specific ways in which art brings capital into a neighborhood within the context of the historic, economic, and the policies that shape neighborhood dynamics. Art is often a metonym for capital, and these case studies demonstrate how the symbolic function of the arts can obscure the precise relationships between art and real estate investment.

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1The opening of an art gallery called PSSST generated crowds of protesters in East Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood in May 2016. PSSST was a nonprofit organization whose mission was to show the work of underrepresented artists of color. But to several local political groups, it was just another sign that the gentrification of downtown Los Angeles was moving into historically Latinx Boyle Heights. Protesters chanted slogans in Spanish and English, including “We don’t need galleries, we need higher salaries!” These demonstrations eventually caused the gallery to close (Delgadillo).

2The Heidelberg Project, a nonprofit based around a 32-year-old evolving work created by Tyree Guyton on the predominantly African American east side of Detroit, announced that it had purchased a building and lots adjacent to the project for $490,000 in September 2018. Two months later, Guyton and project Executive Director Jenenne Whitfield (who is also his wife) joined with Jesse Cory and Roula David, owners of Inner State Gallery and the limited-edition art print company 1xRun, to purchase a 20,000-square-foot building two blocks from the Heidelberg Project for $350,000. The funds came from the sale of Cory and David’s building in Detroit’s Eastern Market. One property would become the Heidelberg’s headquarters, while the other would be a café, gallery and event space. Heidelberg had survived two city-sponsored demolitions and years of arsons, but now had found a permanent home for what it was calling “Heidelberg 3.0.” This event was celebrated by politicians and the press as a culmination of decades of work by Guyton and his colleagues, and was part of a larger effort to expand the impact of Heidelberg with the backing of the Detroit Planning and Development Department (Gross).

3Why were nonprofit art galleries criticized for their role in gentrifying Los Angeles, while an arts organization in Detroit was lauded for the way it directed capital investment into a disinvested area of the city? In each case, the arts helped bring new investment to lower income communities of color in a city experiencing gentrification. But in one case, the arts were a symbol for how capital investment was causing displacement, while in the other, the arts represented a pathway to more equitable development.

4Both scholarly and journalistic accounts identify artists and art galleries as playing a role in urban development. Artists are often the first to move into a disinvested residential or industrial neighborhood before they are eventually priced out by wealthier residents. There is a parallel story in which galleries spark a commercial renaissance that eventually leads to coffee shops and boutiques, which eventually are replaced by chain stores and banks. These narratives are based on some evidence—artists and arts institutions can bring forms of cultural and economic capital to areas that have experienced disinvestment. Yet the causal relationship between the arts and urban development is often overlooked. This is because the arts also function symbolically in urban neighborhoods: artists and galleries are metonyms for gentrification and uneven development.

5In Los Angeles, galleries attracted protests because they were a physical manifestation of gentrification. Protesters saw galleries as an indication that an influx of real estate capital would eventually lead to the displacement of residents. There was less focus on how specifically galleries brought capital investment to Boyle Heights, and how the efforts of galleries fit into broader efforts by private and public actors to generate real estate investment in the area. Across Boyle Heights, eleven galleries were the target of protests regardless of the content of the art sold, the goals of the gallerists, or the background and artists represented.

6In Detroit, the participation of two gallerists in a real estate deal involving Heidelberg was not seen as a sign of gentrification. The investment of the capital proceeds from the sale of a building in Eastern Market, a gentrifying area of Detroit, into new space for Heidelberg generated little protest. It was framed as evidence of the positive community impact of the arts. The fact that Heidelberg began as a project aimed at making capital disinvestment visible was soon overshadowed by its role in catalyzing arts-based redevelopment in Detroit.

7These case studies demonstrate how the symbolic function of the arts can obscure the precise relationships between art and capital. To Boyle Heights protesters, art symbolizes capital. Art galleries are an attractive target for activists concerned with gentrification because protesting galleries is a tangible and manageable way to object to uneven development in the city. The content of the art being sold in newly opened galleries, or the background of artists showing work, is not critical to activists. There has been an influx of capital investment into Boyle Heights, and art galleries have been part of this trend. But whether galleries cause gentrification, or are just one of its many symptoms, is less important than the symbolic value of art as capital.

8In Detroit, the Heidelberg Project began as a work that instrumentalizes and concretizes disinvestment. The goal of the project is to show the absence of capital, not to attract it. But Heidelberg has brought funding to the east side of Detroit through more highly capitalized parts of the art world, including foundations and galleries. Heidelberg has also made connections with Detroit’s Planning and Development Department, and in doing so linked art, capital, and policy. Because of the history of Heidelberg, the nature of Guyton’s artwork, and the real estate market on the east side of Detroit, this occurrence has generated little protest—to many it is a cause for celebration.

9Art and capital are intimately intertwined. Art is a part of financial portfolios, galleries generate sales, artists earn income from their work, and arts institutions draw funding from foundations, government agencies, and donors. Artists and arts organizations can also entice visitors to an area and provide a neighborhood cache that makes it attractive to new residents and investors. Because of this, art is often a metonym for capital, particularly real estate capital. Art is a powerful symbol, but to fully understand the relationship between art and capital in an urban context, one must analyze the art itself, and the specific ways in which art brings capital into a neighborhood within the context of the historic, economic, and the policies that shape neighborhood dynamics.

1. Artists, Galleries, and Gentrification

10The arts hold a central place in scholarly analyses of gentrification. In the first wave of scholarship on gentrification in the 1980s and 90s, sociologists and geographers identified artists as important actors who moved to disinvested neighborhoods, improved the built environment through renovations of residential or industrial space, contributed sweat equity or financial capital into building upgrades, and indicated through their presence that a formerly disinvested area was authentic and attractive. Artists were critical to establishing the aesthetic of gentrification and in signaling to members of the middle and upper classes that these areas were safe to visit and ripe for investment (Ley, The New Middle Class; Ley, “Artists”; Deutsche and Gendel Ryan; Zukin). The next generation of scholars, which also included those in the fields of public policy and urban planning, introduced the ideas of the creative class (which gave a central role to artists) and creative placemaking, in which “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities” (Florida; Markusen and Gadwa). They also explored the relationship between artist communities, the commercial sector, and urban development in the 1990s and 2000s (Lloyd; Currid-Halkett). However, recent empirical studies find little to no quantitative relationship between “arts industries” and gentrification and displacement (Grodach et al.; Schuetz).

11Yet, just because it can be difficult to quantify the relationship between artists and gentrification, the way that art both symbolizes gentrification, and provides connections to the specific forms of capital connected with the art world, is critical to understanding urban development in historical contexts. My own work on the history of New York’s SoHo neighborhood demonstrates that artists and galleries played specific roles that bridged the symbolic and the concrete. Artists both signified new possibilities for former industrial neighborhoods at a time of population loss and disinvestment in New York, while also providing practical methods for reconfiguring industrial lofts into homes. They used their symbolic power as cultural workers to advocate for the passage of new polices that allowed for the legal conversion of lofts into residences. Artist residents drew galleries into SoHo, creating a neighborhood where artists lived among the galleries that sold their (and others’) work for the first time. Galleries contributed to the aesthetic of gentrification in SoHo, but they also drew art buyers, browsers (who would become the customers of nearby retail and establishments), and arts funding from foundations, museums, and corporations into the neighborhood. Both nonprofit and commercial galleries linked SoHo to broader artistic economies (Shkuda).

2. Boyle Heights

12Located directly east of the Los Angeles River, Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood abuts the city’s rapidly gentrifying historic downtown. The western side of the neighborhood is adjacent to the Arts District, a light-industrial area redeveloped by artists beginning in the 1970s, which became one of the most expensive areas of the city by the 2010s (Scott). Both artists and galleries have been priced out of the Arts District, leading new galleries to open in Boyle Heights. Since 2016, protests against galleries in the neighborhood have gained significant attention. Protesters have targeted galleries, including PSSST but also ten others, as generators of gentrification and displacement. These protests have generated substantial coverage in the local and national press, as well as online arts publications. Activists have used boycotts, picket lines, and occupations, as well as online activity, to carry out their goals. The protests have been forceful as well as impactful, causing at least six galleries to close. Advocates have been adamant that all galleries are equally valid targets of protest regardless of their history, content, goals, nonprofit status or level of community engagement (Barbosa and Brynjolson).

13Protesters first focused on Self Help Graphics, a nonprofit gallery with deep ties to the Latino community, and a precarious position within local real estate markets. Self Help Graphics was founded by Sister Karen Boccalero, a Franciscan nun in the early 1970s. Its first home was an East Los Angeles garage. In 1978, Boccalero’s order allowed the gallery to move rent-free into a 1920s-era building on East Cesar Chavez and North Gage Avenues. Self Help Graphics gained a reputation for shaping the careers of some the city’s most successful Chicano artists, including Frank Romero, Patssi Valdez, and Gronk. Its future was thrown into doubt in 2008 when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles sold the building, forcing the organization to contend with the local real estate market. In 2011, it moved to Boyle Heights, securing space in a former sea-urchin packing plant painted black and white to resemble an ocean liner. By relocating three miles away from its former location, Self Help was moving “across the Los Angeles River from downtown on 1st Street, where local artists are trying to create an arts district.” There were plans for another gallery, a theater, and a bookstore to open nearby (Bermudez).

14For activists, the symbolism of a new gallery moving to Boyle Heights was more important than its history. An August 2016 meeting about the neighborhood’s gentrification hosted by Self Help Graphics was taken over by “a dozen mostly young activists, some wearing the brown berets of their 1960s Chicano Movement forebears.” Holding signs reading “Out with the galleries out with the sellouts,” members of a group called Defend Boyle Heights took hold of the microphone and demanded “that all existing galleries leave immediately…. And leave it up to the community on what to do with those spaces.” This was despite Self Help Graphics’ 40-year history and a record of engagement with, and leadership from, the Latinx community (Mejia and Saldivar).

15Activists saw any galleries in Boyle Heights as a threat, even if they were nonprofit galleries rather than commercial institutions. The fact that activists lumped Self Help Graphics in with other new commercial galleries opening in Boyle Heights bothered Betty Avila, its Associate Director. She said, “We function as a nonprofit. We have to fundraise…. We're a community-serving organization whose mission is rooted in serving this local community.” It was unfair to compare the organization with “these new commercial galleries that have thousands and thousands of dollars passing through” (Mejia and Saldivar).

16To activists with Union de Vecinos, art galleries would lead to displacement by driving up housing prices and forestalling any possibility of creating or protecting affordable housing in Boyle Heights. They argued that the neighborhood needed more affordable housing, and that their militant tactics were “necessary to combat the displacement of lower-income renters who make up much of the Eastside” (Mejia and Saldivar).

17Despite Self Help Graphics’ distinct history, Defend Boyle Heights saw Self Help Graphics as complicit with the galleries that had moved in within the past year, institutions they felt would encourage gentrification. On its Facebook page, Defend Boyle Heights criticized the eleven new galleries on the western side of the neighborhood, “an area that has long generated more immediate concerns about gentrification because of its closeness to a gentrifying downtown L.A. and changes that have already taken place” (Mejia and Saldivar). Defend Boyle Heights called for Self Help Graphics to stop working with outside artists and galleries because they felt these collaborations tacitly condoned gentrification. Magda Miranda argued: “Our problem with Self Help Graphics has been that they've been prioritizing the community artists and supporting spaces that give Chicano artists or marginalized artists the space to show... but they’re not recognizing how they’re erasing the voices of the people who stand the most to be affected by gentrification, and those are the community members” (Mejia and Saldivar). In contrast, Lalo Alcaraz, a cartoonist who lived and worked in Boyle Heights for 25 years countered: “Attacking an institution like Self Help Graphics that has created so many artists and given so much voice to the community is simply wrongheaded and counterproductive.... Also, art galleries don’t bring gentrification. Economic forces that are against poor working people bring gentrification” (Mejia and Saldivar).

18The divergent views on Self Help Graphics’ role in Boyle Heights was also reflective of a generational divide amongst Latinx political activists in the neighborhood. As social scientists Alfredo Huante and Kimberly Miranda write in one of the first scholarly articles on the protests, Boyle Heights activists have argued Self Help Graphics’ “newly attained status and recognition (by art and civic organizations alike) position them in conflict with the working class, immigrant, Latinx community they once served.” Moreover, Self Help Graphics’ “partnership with upscale, white-owned art galleries has, in the view of anti-gentrification activists, rewritten the historic arts organization social contract with working-class Chicanx to re-align itself with outside interests and, ultimately, pursuing political and economic benefits for short-term gain” (Huante and Miranda).

19Protesters in Boyle Heights linked galleries with a process of what they called “artwashing.” According to Angel Luna, a resident of the neighborhood and a member of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, “Artwashing is the use of art and artistic labor to perpetuate and enable gentrification.” The group accused the galleries of paving the way for new development and speculation that will eventually end up displacing residents” (Delgadillo).

20To activists, art provided a cover for pernicious capital investment that failed to meet community needs and caused displacement. Gallery owners and the press pushed back against this narrative, arguing that the backgrounds of gallerists and artists complicated the direct relationship between galleries and gentrification. Gallery owner Mihai Nicodim was born in Romania, where he “had to get approval from a Communist Party commission to show his work.” After moving to Los Angeles, he operated his Nicodim Gallery in Chinatown and then Culver City before moving to Boyle Heights in 2015. Nicodim Gallery was the target of protests, though The Los Angeles Times pointed out that many of the artists shown at his gallery were non-white. Yet, to Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, the cultures of the artists showing work at the gallery were irrelevant. The group held a news conference on the steps of his gallery. The Times reported, “The activists want to see laundromats, supermarkets and child care centers in the properties, which had previously housed businesses such as warehouses, print shops and fish packers…. Amid concerns about rising rents, the activists see the galleries as a harbinger of change, which they fear will end with the working-class, mostly Latino neighborhood becoming a second Arts District” (Chang).

21Despite their goals of inclusivity, and nonprofit status, the founders of PSSST were immediately on the defensive about their relationship to real estate investment. Founders Barnett Cohen and Jules Gimbrone announced plans to open an artist-directed, nonprofit gallery that would also host an artist residency in a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in Boyle Heights. Its focus was on “underrepresented artists—women, people of color, or L.G.B.T.Q.-identified—who challenge existing structures within the arts” (Kennedy). The founders, who met as graduate students at the California Institute of the Arts, said the warehouse and former Thai-food distribution plant was bought and was being renovated by a benefactor who preferred to remain anonymous. Cohen, “perhaps sensitive to tensions that have been building in Boyle Heights, a working-class neighborhood, over the incursion of big-money art galleries and their attendant gentrification, stressed that the patron ‘was not a real-estate developer’” (Kennedy).

22While PSSST’s benefactor was unknown, other galleries had the backing of some of the city’s wealthier arts institutions. In September 2016, protesters led a march and hung mock eviction notices on a series of galleries, including a “4,500-square-foot gallery on South Anderson Street recently launched by United Talent Agency, the Hollywood powerhouse that represents fine artists such as Ai Weiwei and Judy Chicago in the world of entertainment.” PSSST and other galleries were targeted with thrown feces and graffiti that read, “white art” (Miranda, “Art”).

23Tagging galleries with the phrase “white art” drew backlash for the stark use of a racial term and prompted a hate crimes investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department (Mejia, “Changing Neighborhoods”). It struck many observers as inaccurate—several Boyle Heights galleries were run by people who did not identify as white, and many showed the work of nonwhite artists. Yet the phrase was consistent with the way activists used art symbolically. Though not every real estate investor, gallerist, or artist working in Boyle Heights was white, art and capital both served to benefit white residents of Los Angeles at the expense of communities of color.

24The Los Angeles Times attempted to provide context for the racial dynamics that shaped Boyle Heights’ history, noting the ways that this Latinx neighborhood had been adversely affected by urban renewal, uneven economic development, and environmental issues that had spared most of the city’s majority-white neighborhoods. Boyle Heights was a center of the Chicano movement after it had “135 acres of freeway that run indiscriminately through the neighborhood,” suffered from contamination from the Exide plant in nearby Vernon, had a scarcity of affordable and low-income housing, and saw development schemes like the (since scrapped) 2014 plan by the Metropolitan Transit Authority to build 120,000 square feet of retail and office space around Mariachi Plaza without any input from local residents (Miranda, “Art”).

25Gallerists were sympathetic to how protesters used their galleries symbolically, but also pointed out the inconsistencies of protesting businesses that also faced displacement from rising real estate prices. Betty Avila, the associate director of Self Help Graphics, noted: “You have a community that is really frustrated and afraid of being displaced. The galleries are the most visible sign of change now, and you go after what you see. It's not all art; it’s art that’s not for this community” (Medina). Yet some galleries pushed back, arguing that protesters had a reductive view of gallery economics. Eva Chimento of Chimento Contemporary said: “To say that white galleries need to leave, so they can decide what goes in their spaces, it’s an unrealistic expectation. There’s no way I can leave my space unless they give me $20,000-plus to buy me out of my space, because I have a landlord, just like everyone else” (Medina).

26The Boyle Heights gallery protests achieved an objective when, in February 2017, PSSST closed. In framing the decision to shut their doors, both the gallerists and the anti-gallery activists cited the role of donors and grantmakers as sources of capital in the art world. In shuttering the gallery, the leaders of PSSST maintained that gallery protesters mischaracterized their institution’s goals, but also tacitly admitted that continuing to operate the gallery was harming the neighborhood. Co-founders Cohen and Gimbrone, and community outreach coordinator Pilar Gallego, wrote in a statement posted on their website: “We are unable to ethically and financially proceed with our mission.” They continued: “This persistent targeting, which was often highly personal in nature, was made all the more intolerable because the artists we engaged are queer, women and/or people of color” and that they “could no longer continue to put already vulnerable communities at further risk.” Yet, perhaps more importantly, fundraising became difficult because of a “mischaracterization” of PSSST “as being fundamentally in opposition with the varied intersectional communities we aimed to support” (Mejia, “Art Gallery”). Defend Boyle Heights and the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (B.H.A.A.A.D.) praised the “responsible conscious funders that understood the mistake of their actions.” The advocates went on to ask why “there is funding for a 501(c)3 to run a gallery to attract new people to Boyle Heights, but not for services for the existing community.” Of course, this situation was not the same for commercial galleries. Mihai Nicodim observed: “I don’t think this boycott affected commercially any of the other galleries—it surely didn’t affect me…. But PSSST is different if they depend on their business to be from fundraisers” (Mejia, “Art Gallery”).

27In March 2018, another Boyle Heights gallery announced it was closing its doors, though its leadership took pains to argue that the decision had less to do with the protests than with the economics of running a gallery. 356 Mission, an art space founded by Los Angeles painter Laura Owens and Ooga Booga bookstore owner Wendy Yao announced the gallery’s closure in May. Yao said that “Doing the space was a labor of love and was always really hard on both of us. And the protests added to this weight” (Miranda, “Boyle Heights”). Both held other jobs on top of their work at the gallery. Owens was a working artist and an art teacher. Yao operated a bookstore in Chinatown, and held other jobs. Owens’ gallery, New York-based Gavin Brown, donated funds from the art she sold to 365 Mission in order to keep the gallery afloat. The two said the gallery operated at a loss the entire time it was open. The owners said they attempted to open a dialog with the protesters. Yao observed: “We feel we have more in common with the protesters than not. Artists can be instrumentalized by a real estate developer, but I think that’s why artists should work with protesters. We are against displacement, but we don’t feel that galleries closing their doors will solve those problems” (Miranda, “Boyle Heights”).

28In August 2018, Robert Zin Stark announced a ceremonial closure of MaRS gallery (short for Museum as Retail Space) after conversations with B.H.A.A.A.D. This decision came on the heels of a series of closings. Venus Los Angeles, run by billionaire art collector Adam Lindemann, closed without notice in January. In April, UTA Artist Space, the visual arts outpost of the Hollywood talent agency, posted a notice on its website that the gallery was “Closed for Relocation” before reopening in Beverly Hills. While Stark was meeting with B.H.A.A.A.D., Eva Chimento also announced that Chimento Contemporary gallery would leave Boyle Heights (Miranda, “Art Galleries”).

29Yet, as the Los Angeles Times noted, the protesters’ focus on galleries drew their attention away from public policies and private investments shaping the development landscape of Boyle Heights. They observed: “even as the closures might seem to mark a turning point for the neighborhood’s anti-gentrification battles, larger development issues loom on the horizon—issues that will not be resolved even if every gallery in Boyle Heights were to immediately pack up and leave, and issues that, for now, B.H.A.A.A.D has largely not addressed” (Miranda, “Art Galleries”). These included Los Angeles City Planning’s efforts to rewrite the zoning code for the neighborhood, developing a draft community plan that will set boundaries for development in the area, proposals for higher-density building around public transit, and the designation of an innovation district for the industrial portions of the Flats (where several galleries were located). The passage of the federal tax law in 2017, which created the opportunity zones program, established a district in the northern section of the Flats, from 4th Street to the 101 Freeway. There was also a pending redevelopment of an old Sears, Roebuck & Co. mail order building by the Shomof Group, which was “set to be remade as a mixed-use complex that includes industrial-chic lofts, 200,000 square feet of creative offices and amenities such as a putting green and a pool” (Miranda, “Art Galleries”). As The Times noted, the Sears project has drawn little attention from protesters, who had also been absent from the zoning process. As Rigo Amavizca, an activist with the Comité de la Esperanza, a tenant rights organization for the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, a historic rent-stabilized complex on Olympic Boulevard, explained: “We have to put our focus where we think we can win.” “We are limited in personnel and in what we can do.” Isela Gracian, president of the East L.A. Community Corp. (ELACC), a nonprofit advocacy group and housing developer based in Boyle Heights, said, “Before Defend Boyle Heights came on the map, the conversation about gentrification and displacement was taking place in the neighborhood,” but the protests have given “some oomph” to the work (Miranda, “Art Galleries”).

30That is, galleries were targeted because they are a highly visible manifestation of gentrification, and area institutions with relatively small amounts of power and/or capital. Local groups felt they were able to push back against art galleries while they were unable to fight against the combined efforts of city government or developers to channel investment into Boyle Heights. Protests against galleries could make anger over large-scale processes of urban change more tangible. But even those involved in the protests knew that their impact would be, at best, the beginning of a larger conversation or social movement that would have to address broader systemic issues, such as zoning codes, incentives given to developers, and who has a say in how land is redeveloped.

3. Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project

31With the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, many of the dynamics with gallery protests in Boyle Heights were reversed: the nature of the artwork itself is a central part of the conversation, which is focused on disinvestment, and the project is framed as a successful example of how art can be leveraged to bring new forms of capital into a minority community. Heidelberg is a block-long installation-collage by African American artist and Detroit native Tyree Guyton. It consists of reclaimed lots and homes along Heidelberg Street on the city’s east side. The works at the core of the project (including the house where Guyton grew up) have consisted of houses covered with brightly covered polka dots, LPs, or stuffed animals, and empty lots “filled with meticulously and densely layered piles of shoes, discarded toys, vacuum cleaners, and other objects” (Hamera 161). Not everyone has viewed Heidelberg positively. Detroit Mayors Coleman Young and Dennis Archer ordered teardowns of portions of the project in 1991 and 1999, and twelve fires (likely arsons) took place between 2013 and 2015. Yet the project has endured, and is the third most visited tourist attraction in the city. Though located in a heavily disinvested neighborhood of Detroit, Heidelberg is three miles from the city’s downtown, and about one mile from Eastern Market, areas that have seen substantial new investment and some gentrification in the past two decades.

32Scholarly assessments of Heidelberg split along lines similar to the overall public assessment of the project (which has tended towards the positive in recent years). Wendy Walters argued that Guyton’s Heidelberg Project is an act of community sovereignty, marking the past of the neighborhood and creating a democratic vision for community empowerment that pushes back against the erasure (both literal and figurative) of the neighborhood and its people by deindustrialization, suburbanization and racial capitalism (Walters). Judith Hamera described Heidelberg as gestic space that materializes Detroit’s racial, political and economic history in ways that challenge its current color-blind “renaissance” narrative (Hamera 162-163). Yet landscape architect Jill Desimini groups Heidelberg with other temporary interventions in the urban landscape that are “intended to alter perceptions and raise awareness of abandonment,” yet, “have not spurred neighborhood improvement, remaining singular, isolated and without future direction” (Desimini).

33The Detroit Free Press observed that its own archives represented a chronicle of changing perceptions of the project. Throughout the 1990s, “Art reviews applauding the visionary work of Guyton coincide with news stories documenting a multiyear war between the same man and the city.” In 1996, the administration of Mayor Dennis Archer collaborated with Whitfield and a vice president at Comerica Bank on “a five-year, $4.5-million project to renovate several buildings in the area and turn Heidelberg into a center of creativity where artists live, work and teach others.” But by 1997, Heidelberg received notice that it would need to be dismantled because it was holding up development. Greg Bowens, Mayor Archer’s Press deputy secretary said: “We’ve tried to see this thing nurtured along and see if it can be an engine for economic development…. Clearly, we’re not satisfied with what we see so far. Time is running out.” The city council voted to demolish the project, which never came to pass (Gross).

34The Heidelberg Project fell victim to a series of unexplained arsons in fall 2013, which provided a dramatic acceleration of a project highlighting the slow destruction of a neighborhood due to capital disinvestment and neglect. Fires claimed several of the abandoned homes on Heidelberg Street that Guyton had turned into works of art by adorning the exteriors with paintings and found objects. Suspected arsons destroyed the “Obstruction of Justice” or OJ house on October 5, House of Soul (a building covered in LP records) on November 12, Penny House (decorated with images of the currency) on November 21, War Room on November 28, and the Clock House (adorned with Guyton’s signature clock paintings) on December 8 (Dixon).

35The arsons highlighted the tangible connections between Heidelberg and both real estate and artistic capital due to the taxes owed on the homes at the core of the art work, and for the way Guyton and his colleagues were able to use the project to obtain grant funding. The project had lost homes and empty lots that were part of the project to unpaid property taxes over the past several years, “including its signature ‘Party Animal House’ covered in stuffed animals that is now owned by the city” (Matheny and Stables Battaglia). This was at the same time “Tyree Guyton’s street art gained renown, and grants from prominent foundations swelled the project's revenues from $54,000 in 2008 to nearly $600,000 in 2011” (Matheny and Stables Battaglia). Whitfield said that the Heidelberg Project’s property tax troubles are part of an “ongoing battle with the City of Detroit” over its tax-exempt status, which it obtained in 2011, and made retroactive to 2007. However, in some cases, homes and properties were already lost, and/or unpaid taxes from earlier eras still resulted in foreclosures. The city’s planning community took an ambiguous stance on the project. Robert Anderson, director of Detroit's Planning and Development Department said that it was time to reassess the status of the Party Animal House: “I think we really need to at some point sit down as a community and think about what is the role of that art installation in the community…. I know some people are opposed to it; some people support it. I think [recently elected Mayor Mike] Duggan's administration is going to probably have a conversation about that, especially with the recent arsons. I think it really brings into question what role is that going to play in the community” (Matheny and Stables Battaglia).

36The constant arsons cast a pall over fundraising efforts, even as Heidelberg was gaining a reputation as national model of creative placemaking. In March 2014, project leadership announced that they were pausing a $3 million capital and operational campaign due to the arsons. The funding would have gone to new art installations, but instead the nonprofit decided to install new solar energy streetlights as part of an enhanced security plan funded through $54,000 raised from donors. This was at the same time The Heidelberg Project gained an international reputation as a pioneer in creative placemaking. Executive Director Whitfield maintained that “central to the project’s sustainability is strengthening its brand and raising awareness about its role as a creative placemaking pioneer” (Welch).

37As Heidelberg considered its future, the fires continued, but this time in the midst of Detroit’s recovery from bankruptcy and the ensuing coverage of rising real estate investment that accompanied the city’s “comeback.” In October 2014, the Cake House or Birthday Cake, known for the colorful painted cakes on its exterior, was hit by arson, the eleventh Heidelberg Project building to succumb to fire in the two previous years. This time Whitfield “suggested that the reason behind the rash of arsons in the area is a desire for land” (Allen).

38In the intervening years, Heidelberg’s reputation grew, and by 2016 Guyton announced a path to making the project more lasting and impactful, particularly in the realm of policy. Guyton announced that the Heidelberg, at least in its current form, would be dismantled. “During the next few years, the Heidelberg Project, which draws an estimated 200,000 visitors a year from all over the globe, will morph into something the organization is calling Heidelberg 3.0—an ‘arts-infused community’ rather than an installation driven by one man” (Stryker). The change was attributed to the toll of three years of arsons on Guyton, the time dedicated to the remainder of his art practice (including gallery commissions), and the fact that Guyton had been at work on Heidelberg for half his life. Whitfield said of this change, “We’re cultivating the community to prepare them for this arts community…. That’s our work over the next two years” (Stryker).

39The goal was to “transform The Heidelberg Project from an art installation largely driven by one man into a living, breathing arts-infused community for residents and visitors alike to gather, express their creativity, cultivate talent and embrace the culture of the neighborhood.” Yet the overarching goal would be the same, “to improve the lives of people and neighborhoods through art.” Guyton hoped that Heidelberg 3.0 would further this goal “by injecting new life, new people and new resources into the community.” The plan was for “Heidelberg Project supporters and new partners to address blight and economic conditions by transforming the physical site and McDougall Hunt neighborhood into a self-sustainable cultural village” (Heidelberg Project Celebrates 30 Years).

40This new path would be driven by new partnerships and financial opportunities. The organization planned to launch a fund-raising campaign to, among other things, create a retirement fund for Guyton, who only began collecting a $24,000 stipend that year. On the other hand, Heidelberg had recently begun a partnership with the watch company Shinola to install a grandfather clock on Heidelberg Street decorated by Guyton (Modrak). At this point, the organization’s annual budget was roughly $600,000, with 65 percent coming from foundations and 35 percent from individual giving. However, the Heidelberg Project existed on 27 parcels of land owned by the city, though project leaders had been in conversation with the Detroit Land Bank about the possibility of acquiring them (Stryker).

41Yet a new vision for the project still meant some of the same obstacles they previously encountered, including the problem of dealing with Detroit’s surplus of vacant land and the challenges of working with government agencies. In July 2017, Heidelberg leadership reported that their application to be a community partner with the Detroit Land Bank Authority was turned down twice with no explanation. This designation allows nonprofits and faith-based to buy bundles of properties from the Land Bank’s inventory. Purchasing the House of Words, the House of Soul, and the House of Artificial Intelligence was a key part of the future vision for the project (Guillen). The City of Detroit mistakenly issued demolition permits for the properties in September 2017 before quickly correcting the error (Stafford, “Heidelberg Homes”). There was some progress and reason for optimism in October, as Heidelberg announced that its “vision to create an art-infused community and ‘culture village’” had taken one step forward with a construction project on the Numbers House, one of only two original structures still standing, thanks to a $110,000 capital campaign to raise funds for a new roof, windows, plumbing, and electrical work. Plans were to construct space for an artist-in-residence program, a new studio and gallery for emerging artists, and an education and event space focused on neighborhood and youth programming (Stafford, “A New Era”).

42It was an infusion of cash from the gallery world that allowed plans for Heidelberg 3.0 to move forward in earnest. In November 2017, Jesse Cory and Dan Armand announced that they were shuttering their contemporary art gallery, Inner State Gallery, and selling the building at 1410 Gratiot near Detroit's Eastern Market, in which it had operated for the past five years. They had purchased the 8,000-square-foot brick building in 2013 for $400,000 and sold it for $1.2 million in December 2016. 1xRun, the publishing company, also owned and operated by the duo, would be moving as well. Founded in 2010, 1xRun specializes in limited edition, time-released art prints as an affordable alternative to purchasing an original work of art. Proceeds are split evenly between the company and the artist. The company generated $750,000 in artist commissions in 2016, and at that point, employed 20 people. In July, they finalized the $350,000 purchase of a 20,000-square-foot building at 2905 Beaufait, two blocks from the Heidelberg Project (Hooper). Half of the funding of the purchase came from Heidelberg, and the location would serve as the organization’s new headquarters (Gross).

43Heidelberg was critical to the gallerists’ decision to cash out on their real estate investment. “Likely attracted by the longstanding Heidelberg Project art installation and its annual 200,000 visitors, members of the creative class are taking note of the area’s appeal and abundance of real estate. Many are expecting Eastern Market and downtown Detroit’s resurgence to eventually stretch northeast up Gratiot.” As Jenenne Whitfield said, “1xRun represents the creative spirit we are attracting and cultivating in this neighborhood as part of Heidelberg 3.0… It sends a powerful message when a leading arts organization makes a bricks and mortar investment in this community because they believe in being part of a greater vision” (Hooper).

44The idea was to take the funds, raised through 1xRun’s real estate sale and routed through an arts institution, and use them to expand Heidelberg’s impactful community development. According to Whitfield, in order to fulfill their vision of “bringing hope, new life to the neighborhood” the Numbers House would be transformed into a studio and gallery for emerging artists and living quarters for an artist-in-residence, who would reside there for three months to a year (Daniels). While in residence, the artist would undertake projects that furthered Heidelberg’s mission, such as running community workshops, or organizing public performances or exhibitions. Beyond the houses associated with the project itself, the goal was to have Heidelberg’s impact felt across the community. “Residents and business owners belonging to the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood—the area where the Heidelberg Project is located—meet regularly to discuss possibilities for their properties” (Daniels). One local businessperson, Donna Kassab was considering how she might reimagine her family’s liquor store near the project into a healthy food market or café. She and Whitfield were in dialogue about what redevelopment of her family’s property might look like, “keeping in mind both the needs of residents and visitors to the landmark public art space.” This could include “residents and visitors alike buying nutritious food, and locals getting access to the type of jobs that are popping up just a few miles away from Heidelberg” (Daniels).

45By fall, 2018, Heidelberg had entered into a more formal partnership with the city’s planning apparatus. Though it was still working with the Land Bank Authority to determine how to purchase 40 vacant lots surrounding the project, Maurice Cox, Director of Planning and Development for the City of Detroit, stated: “It’s clear that they are going to be a permanent fixture in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood, which we are really encouraged by. That’s a really big commitment they’ve made.” His department was working to help the Heidelberg Project create a Strategic Framework, “the first step in allowing the city to understand a group’s intentions and how many parcels it needs to execute said vision.” This was critical to expanding the project’s reach. As Cox observed, “While the heart and soul of Heidelberg is on Heidelberg Street, they clearly are seeing their future in the larger context that is going to uplift the McDougall neighborhood beyond Heidelberg Street” (Gross).

46It was real estate capital, both from donors and from the gallery world, that helped bring about this change. “The real estate developments—nearly $800,000 in investments, when including a $122,000 crowdfunding campaign from last year to create an artist residency program—are newsworthy in themselves. Heidelberg is coming home. For the city, this seems to indicate a seriousness on the part of the project.” As the Detroit Free Press observed, “A project that for years has sparred with the City of Detroit, may finally be becoming a partner, getting the credibility and acknowledgment that many believe it has long-deserved. A project that saw itself as more than just an art installation—that it was a catalyst for community development—may actually be taken seriously” (Gross).

47The support of gallerists and the Detroit Planning and Development Department were mutually reinforcing, and allowed Heidelberg to think more seriously about how its real estate holdings would allow it to carry out its vision on the east side of Detroit. Official sanction removed much of the threat of demolition, and established a formal collaboration between Heidelberg and city government. But this new interest raised fresh issues—with the increased attention to Detroit, and the redevelopment of parts of the city, “With this new direction also came another goal. The land. A say in what happens next.” Whitfield stated: “What we were fighting for is our right to develop that land that we had been taking care of for 30 years…. We want that right. We deserve that right. That’s Tyree's childhood neighborhood” (Gross).

48Of course, an injection of capital from the gallery world didn’t hurt either. As Allie Gross of The Free Press put it, “there is also energy around the new headquarters and collaboration with Inner State—private purchases that get the ball rolling” (Gross). Cory, the co-owner of Inner State, grew up in suburban Romeo, Michigan and began coming to Detroit as a teenager in the mid-1990s to see the Heidelberg Project, and even donated paint to the project. When his own gallery moved downtown in 2013, he approached Guyton about collaborating. They worked together on shows in 2014 and 2016 before entering into a partnership to buy the Beaufait building. Cory said of the project: “I feel this energy that radiates from the ground at Heidelberg Project. It’s unlike any other energy…. It’s a focused energy from people all over the world having positive thoughts and thinking about it. Projecting that energy to that space…. The Heidelberg has that energy because of what it does and what it means” (Gross).

4. Conclusion

49What, then, is to be learned from these case studies of the ways that artists and arts institutions function symbolically and practically in the contemporary city? On one level, the difference between the response to Boyle Heights Galleries and the Heidelberg Project has to do with the dissimilar property markets in each city. Los Angeles is a hyper-gentrified city with rising real estate prices and high levels of displacement throughout the bulk of its neighborhoods. Detroit has seen very localized gentrification, and there is a sense among residents that many of the changes that occurred benefit a narrow range of the populace. But the city is still dealing with disinvestment far more than gentrification. The neighborhood investment generated by Heidelberg is not likely to lead to gentrification or displacement anytime soon. In contrast, Boyle Heights activists are fighting a widespread struggle against displacement, and galleries have become an expedient focus for what activists hope will be a broader fight to keep Boyle Heights affordable in the long term.

50The duration of the conversations about art and capital also shapes the way policymakers, activists, and the press frame the impact of Heidelberg Project and Boyle Heights galleries. Tyree Guyton has been at work on his project for the better part of four decades. The project has survived because Guyton and Whitfield have been flexible, working with foundations, government agencies, and arts institutions to help further their goals. To many, they have earned the right to collaborate with grant makers and gallerists from outside of the community. The fact that Guyton and Whitfield are African American artists and arts administrators working in a predominantly Black neighborhood (Guyton grew up on Heidelberg Street), deflects some potential criticism. Their efforts have led capital from the mostly white art world to come to the east side of Detroit, but these efforts can be seen as rising organically from the community.

51In Boyle Heights, activists objected to galleries’ absence of collaboration and prior consultation with representatives of the community. This was even the case with Self Help Graphics which, despite its long-standing relationship with the Latinx community, was a newcomer to the area. Because it arrived in Boyle Heights after the neighborhood had begun to gentrify, some activists saw Self Help Graphics as equivalent to other institution from outside the community being imposed on the neighborhood. To many activists, the demographics of gallery owners, the identities of the artists they represented, and the content of the art being produced through the gallery, was unimportant. Boyle Heights protesters associated art and development with the privileges of whiteness.

52These case studies also remind scholars to avoid reductionist analyses of the impact on urban neighborhoods. With the Heidelberg Project, there was a debate in the press and among city leaders about whether the work itself could be considered art at all. The sanction of the formal art world has essentially ended this debate, and Guyton’s work has been shown at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the Studio Museum of Harlem and many others. He co-curated the United States’ entry to China's Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism in 2018, and he is represented by New York’s Martos Gallery (Tyree Guyton—Detroit Based Artist). Although the success of Guyton as an artist is critical to the ability of the Heidelberg Project to direct funds from foundations, galleries, and real estate sales to the east side of Detroit, the nature and goals of the artwork itself have faded from the conversation. The Heidelberg Project is a nonprofit that grew out of an artwork that highlighted the city’s lack of capital investment, but its community impact is predicted on the funding Guyton and Whitfield were able to attract. Similarly, Boyle Heights has a long tradition of the arts in multiple forms, but the new galleries that have opened in recent years are commercial institutions, some of which are nonprofits, that represent a range of artists. Yet all are lumped together as institutions with the power to transform neighborhoods through the way they symbolize capital investment and displacement.

53What is consistent across both cases is that art the symbolic function of art often overshadows the relationship between art and real estate. Activists in Boyle Heights have purposely avoided engaging with questions of zoning, urban development, and planning, even when policy choices about zoning and tax incentives that would shape local real estate markets were being made at the same time the gallery protests occurred. The Heidelberg Project eventually generated a conversation about disinvestment on the east side of Detroit, and the visitors and capital it brought to the area made it a focus of planning efforts. However, the exact nature of the collaborations with the Planning and Development Department are still evolving. The Heidelberg Project is a successful example of an arts organization catalyzing a meaningful conversation about the role of the arts in urban development, despite the fact that a policy impact was not among Guyton’s’ stated goals for the artwork. Even in this now-iconic case study, there is still a disconnect between the function and meaning of art as it is related to capital, and the goals of an artwork (and of the artist) working at a specific urban site.

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Electronic reference

Aaron Shkuda, “Out With the Galleries, Out with the Sellouts:” Arts Organizations and Real Estate Investment in Los Angeles and DetroitEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 03 July 2023, connection on 20 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Aaron Shkuda

Aaron Shkudaruns the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and is the author of The Lofts of Soho: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950–1980 (2016). He previously held positions at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford Universities.

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