In America’s biggest newspapers, a familiar narrative about Detroit keeps playing out. Many commentators have claimed that, following the 2008 recession, the city weathered all kinds of financial turmoil, and its community has never recovered. But Nia Batts, an entrepreneur now based in the city, said that Detroit’s art scene knows this is hardly the case—artists are thriving and helping develop a strong sense of community. “They’re supportive in one another’s work,” she told ARTnews. “They want to live in a city that is a reflection of the opportunities that exist when artists have a chance to create.”
To help portray Detroit’s dynamism to the rest of the world, Batts has worked with McArthur Binion, an artist raised in the city known for his abstractions crafted from official documents, to help launch a new nonprofit aimed at bringing attention to the city’s art scene. Titled Modern Ancient Brown, the foundation will offer artists based anywhere residencies in Detroit and the surrounding region, in the process elevating the local art community.
“Detroit visual artists have been overlooked and underrated nationally,” Binion wrote in an email. “We’re now seeing that start to change. That’s the narrative that we’re focused on supporting. Whether you’re from Detroit, or spend time reflecting and creating here, for the artistic community past, present, and future, Detroit is a canvas for the unfolding of that process.”
For Binion, whose work, he said, ponders “the simultaneous realities of being Modern, Ancient, and Brown,” the Detroit-based residency program is of a piece with his art. He’s aiming for what “an exploration of identity and narrative looks like for artists, outside of their primary discipline.”
Located on the third floor of a rectory, Modern Ancient Brown will facilitate two residency programs—one in Detroit, the other in Western Michigan. The Detroit one, launching later this year, comes with a $10,000 grant; two artists will be accepted in 2020. (Four artists will participate in the Detroit residency in future editions.) The Western Michigan residency, due to be inaugurated in 2021, will receive two artists and come with a greater sum for each participant. The goal with both residencies is to advance “new forms of representation and make space for storytelling,” Batts said.
When the foundation was first being planned, Binion and Batts hadn’t anticipated a crisis: the coronavirus pandemic. “Detroit has been impacted very acutely by the pandemic, especially communities of color,” Batts said. In response, Modern Ancient Brown launched Covid-19 relief funds for the local community. Binion also provided a drawing to a coloring book created and distributed by Library Street Collective to children who attend public schools in the city.
This sort of empathy will course through all of Modern Ancient Brown’s activities. “Compassion and community have always carried us through challenging times, these experiences can empower our art,” Binion said. “Detroit has always been defined by its resilience, and artists are at the forefront.”