Progressive Art Jam raises excitement, funding for Detroit’s Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts

Above: A DJ set kicks off at Talking Dolls during the Progressive Art Jam.

The Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts has made its name, over the last four years, as one of the most organic and homegrown celebrations of Detroit’s artistic and cultural landscape. Founded in 2012 by Ryan Myers-Johnson, who now serves as its artistic director, the festival presents original, place-based and traditional performance, installation art and land art. It received a $35,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant in 2014, and a second $40,000 grant in 2015, which has enabled an increasingly ambitious roster of performances and participants.

“This Sidewalk Festival, we’re really thinking about the idea of play and mobility,” said Myers-Johnson in an email interview. “Those are really different things, but they are very present themes in the work that we are presenting this year. We’ll be featuring about 15 installation projects throughout the festival–these are things that people can get involved with. We also have a number of pieces that are dealing with mobility, whether they are literally traveling throughout the festival locations or giving people an opportunity to comment on mobility.”

But with Knight Arts Challenge funding comes the obligation to raise matching funds–a challenge that the festival’s Curator and Manager of Artist Relationships and Special Projects, Billy Mark, chose to tackle, in part, by arranging the first-ever Sidewalk Progressive Art Jam–a wild, all-night revel and bus tour that featured three different artist-run spaces and a cavalcade of Detroit artists, both performing and in attendance.

“I feel like Sidewalk is about honoring places off the beaten track, where people from all types of backgrounds can meet and be shocked, inspired, engaged and encouraged by art,” said Mark. “Sidewalk is an explosion of artistic diversity, and the Progressive Art Jam was a lead-up and a reminder that sometimes we need to go outside of our comfort zone to meet brilliant work where it is at.”

A performance at One Mile in Detroit.

The evening touched off at One Mile, a reclaimed space in the formerly thriving entertainment district along Oakland Avenue, which was once the place where legends like John Lee Hooker and George Clinton took groundbreaking steps that altered the musical landscape collaborative. The space is run collaboratively by a cohort that includes Knight Arts grantee Halima Cassells, and Bryce Detroit of the Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition.

“One Mile is a multi-disciplinary collaborative effort to support the cultural production and socio-economic activity of Detroit’s epic North End neighborhood, using architectural design to create cultural infrastructure that will support new economics,” said Bryce Detroit, in his introductory speech. “So the space that you’re in right now and tonight’s music curation is brought to you by an organization called Detroit Afrikan Music Institution. Our goal is to support the preservation, the production and the promotion of diasporic African and indigenous music culture coming out of Detroit.” (The Detroit Afrikan Music Institution received a $50,000 Knight Arts grant in 2015, to support the creation of a nomadic funk opera.) The evening’s One Mile program included a buffet dinner provided by Guerilla Food Detroit, and performances by drummer Efe Bes, Pirahnahead, and Parliament legend Carl “Butch” Small–as well as a heart-stopping performance by poet Jessica Care Moore, accompanied on guitar by Kenny Watson.

Following the performances, participants gathered into buses provided by the Detroit Bus Company and headed to the second location, Talking Dolls, on the middle East Side. “The Sidewalk Progressive Jam was our first attempt at a fundraiser,” said Myers-Johnson. “We wanted to give people an unforgettable experience and also keep in line with our vision of highlighting unique Detroit places that the are off the beaten path, while uplifting the voices of artists who are pushing boundaries, and making socially relevant work. Billy Mark was given the task of going deeper with building relationships and fostering a sense of community with sidewalk artists and audiences and we are trying to reach. This is a product of those ideas.”

Talking Dolls started five years ago, founded by a cohort of former Cranbrook Academy of Art students, and currently run by Wesley Taylor, Andrea Cardinal and Ron Watters. “Since we’ve begun, the members have shifted, but we have always been an interdisciplinary space that supports all types of practices,” said Taylor. “We are not a collective, per se, but we do overlap on projects. In addition to our individual practices, the space incubates emerging practices and businesses. During the summers we run a residency called IR (Incubator Residency), where we provide space for Cranbrook students in between their first and second years to work while being rooted in Detroit. The residency has been very successful in retaining artists in Detroit who would normally leave the area after graduation.” Among the projects based out of Talking Dolls is Knight Arts grantee Complex Movements, whose Knight-sponsored performance, “Beware of the Dandelions,” will begin touring in October of this year.

This Progressive Art Jam stop included a tour of the facilities and DJ set by Waajeed a.k.a. Jeedo, which triggered an impromptu performance by renowned Jit practitioner and Knight Arts grantee Haleem “Stringz” Rasul, founder of the Hardcore Detroit dance crew. This was followed by a performance by hip-hop artist Invincible, that paid tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement and acknowledged the loss of 7-year-old Detroiter Aiyana Jones, whose accidental death at the hands of the Detroit Police Department took place in her home just a few minutes away from Talking Dolls.

Noah Elliott Morrison takes in the mobile art at Live Coal Gallery.

Following Invincible’s set, the crowd loaded up once more for the final stop on the Progressive Art Jam agenda, which took place in a nondescript middle West Side location that featured a massive warehouse space, and, in the parking lot, the new Live Coal Mobile Gallery. Organizer Yvette Rock was on hand as visitors streamed through to look at an installation by artist Sarah Perry Mark, and works by others in the Live Coal stable. The gallery, which is a new and reimagined version of Rock’s former, more traditional, Live Coal gallery space on Trumbull, will make an appearance at the Brightmoor Artisans Community Kitchen on July 29, as well as at the upcoming Sidewalk Festival.

Inside, the music group My Brightest Diamond, fronted by Knight Arts grantee Shara Worden, turned in an electrifying performance of new work, some of which clearly reveals Worden’s progress on, “You Us We All,” a newly composed modern baroque chamber opera. The night drew to a close with a dance party. The whole evening was a powerhouse demonstration of the Detroit art spirit, which makes miracles out of rough spaces.

“The locations were inspiring because they were primarily run by native Detroiters,” said Mark of the art jam. “They are creating safe spaces for talented people of color to create work that helps us all achieve the diversity and fullness of voice that we are all craving. It’s nice to see spaces that support dope black artists pushing the boundaries of design and aesthetics, taste and access. Artists are amazing, and so are the important spaces of accessibility and diversity that provide them an environment to thrive.”

The art jam was, of course, merely the wind-up for the fourth annual Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts, which will take place August 5-6. The lineup consists of a massive assortment of performances and artistic endeavors, including a visit from “The Truth Booth,” a Cause Collective project that is making its Detroit debut thanks to Cranbrook Art Museum and support from Knight.

“As usual we don’t really know what to expect except a crazy, fun collision of color artistry, and a myriad of perspectives all coming together,” said Myers-Johnson.

This is the first year that Sidewalk Festival will be extended to two days, due to ever-increasing interest in the festival. Organizers are particularly excited about its nighttime potential. “On Friday night, we’ll be featuring [a] number of interactive works for after dark,” Myers-Johnson said. “This is all in keeping with our vision of creating a sense of space, and magic with the artwork that we present.”

Mark your calendars for a weekend of incredible Detroit art and connections. If the Progressive Art Jam is any indicator, Sidewalk organizers are going all out to create a fun and eye-opening extravaganza.