Mt. Clemens aims to reposition itself as a destination for artists

Artist Sean Maxwell grew up around Mt. Clemens. He went to L’Anse Creuse Public Schools. In high school, Maxwell’s work was part of an exhibit at the Anton Art Center, the venerable arts and culture non-profit organization located in downtown Mt. Clemens.

He graduated from the College for Creative Studies and today, he is employed as a clay modeler for General Motors. He remains an independent artist.

Given that, Maxwell, still in his late 20s, would seem the ideal face of Mt. Clemens and its burgeoning arts scene.

Maxwell, however, had long ago left Mt. Clemens for artist communities in Detroit and Hamtramck. The infrastructure to support an artists’ community in Mt. Clemens, he says, was just not there.

“There are not a lot of places to facilitate creativity, other than the bars. There was just not enough to make me stay,” Maxwell says. “Me and other artist friends moved to Hamtramck.”

When comparing Mt. Clemens to more popular arts havens throughout Metro Detroit, Maxwell cites issues like affordability and opportunity as differentiating factors.

But that all might be changing.

Artist Sean Maxwell. Photo by David Lewinski.

Artspace

The City of Mt. Clemens, along with a number of local stakeholders, has committed itself to transform the city into one of the premier artists’ communities in the region. There are the smaller placemaking projects, like public art installations, murals, and sculptures, and there is the biggest development yet: The announcement of the Artspace project, a national non-profit that develops affordable live/workspaces for artists around the country.

“I sense that there’s a desire for innovation downtown, to get more people living downtown. There are several vacant lots and buildings to make things happen,” says Wendy Holmes, senior vice president of consulting and strategic partnerships for Artspace.

“The leadership is in place. There’s new energy to do something innovative downtown.”

There are roughly 50 Artspace developments throughout the country and even one in nearby Dearborn. An Artspace development typically converts a historic yet vacant building into a live/workspace for artists, including lofts and studios, and all according to affordable housing guidelines as established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Artspace in Dearborn, for example, converted the old City Hall into 53 affordable live/workspaces for artists and their families.

Anton Art Center. Photo by David Lewinski.

Just where an Artspace could end up in downtown Mt. Clemens has yet to be determined. A 2019 feasibility study determined that, yes, Mt. Clemens is a viable location for an Artspace. The study identified three possible sites--the old Saint Joseph Sanitarium and Bath House, Grotto, and Chapel on North Avenue; an office building at 85 N. Main St.; and the old Victory Inn on North River Road, ranked first, second, and third, respectively--though a market survey will help determine which site will ultimately be selected.

A launch event was scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 4, at the Anton Art Center, to feature speeches and performances to commemorate the start of the survey. The deadline for the survey is Tuesday, March 17.

Anton Art Center. Photo by David Lewinski.

“The information gathered will help inform the rest of the decision-making process, determining how large of a facility can be sustainable and what amenities the artists want,” says Phil Gilchrist, executive director for the Anton Art Center.

“This survey will determine what the end product could look like.”

The Artspace news demonstrates that Mt. Clemens is on board with the idea that the arts can help reinvigorate the city’s downtown. It’s not a new idea, necessarily, but a big commitment with a lot of moving parts nonetheless. The Anton Art Center partnered with the City of Mount Clemens, Mount Clemens Downtown Development Authority, and Macomb County Planning & Economic Development to make it happen.

Phil Gilchrist. Photo by David Lewinski.

Small changes

As big a project as Artspace may turn out to be, there are plenty of smaller, community-level projects happening throughout Mt. Clemens, as well.

For some, that’s where real change happens. Though he doesn’t disparage the Artspace project, Ed Bruley, secretary of the board of directors for the Macomb Cultural & Economic Partnership, believes in small changes, block by block.

His organization is responsible for the sculpture park on the southside of town. A pocket park is in the works.

“You can look at economic development in terms of these monumental projects but I think we need to improve each block incrementally. I think it’s a mistake to put all of your resources into one giant development. Economic development needs to happen at the family level,” Bruley says.

“I think that’s what we do. You change a block, you change what people think.”

Changing people’s perceptions of Mt. Clemens was also the goal of Advancing Macomb and its “Play Everywhere” public art campaign. The organization installed four public art pieces throughout downtown. The project was part of the KaBoom! and Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation "Play Everywhere" grant challenge.



Anton Art Center. Photo by David Lewinski.

“We were looking at how to help the city. We know that creativity drives innovation, that art drives development. We’re looking to change the narrative of downtown Mt. Clemens,” says Diane Banks, executive director of Advancing Macomb.

“Art helps bring people together and get them walking around downtown.”

If Mt. Clemens wants to attract and retain artist-types to the city, it’s this combination of large- and small-scale projects that can help do so.

Providing space and opportunity while changing perceptions of the city through art.

It’s been done before. Why not here?

“Artspace is a 180-degree turn of events. Mt. Clemens needs more affordable rent and things to do to attract artists and young people. We need more affordable studio space, more gallery options. There are a lot of empty storefronts downtown,” Maxwell says.

“Artspace is a good first step. If that happens, it’ll bring artists and then we can go from there.”

That’s the idea, anyhow.

The market survey will determine how big Artspace will be, how many units it can fill, what sort of amenities it will provide.

But it’s no longer a question. Artspace is happening, says Gilchrist.

“It’s not a matter of if but a matter of when.”

 
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