Detroit artists push for transparency and fair pay after mystery murals crop up downtown

click to enlarge A mural of Bakpak Durden painted by Australian artist Smug. - Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling

A mural of Bakpak Durden painted by Australian artist Smug.

Driving in downtown Detroit, passing Cass Avenue at I-75, a towering mural of Bakpak Durden catches our eye. On social media, people have been asking who painted this glorious depiction of the Detroit artist now gracing downtown Detroit’s skyline, and even wondering if it had been painted by Durden. Another nearby mural depicting a girl singing into a microphone with birds finding newfound freedom from their cages declares, “The sound of change has many voices.”

We thought they may have been part of the City Walls program, where local artists are selected to “beautify” Detroit neighborhoods with art approved by residents, but we soon realized they were painted by international artists (who are mostly European). That’s when Detroit muralist Sydney James called us.

“All of these white artists painted Black people,” she says. “There was no vetting process or anything. They said, ‘Hey we can come in and paint these walls,’ and the city said OK, but they make Detroit artists go through the wringer and do all these community activations before they can put something up. These European artists weren’t asked to do all of that.”

The seven large murals are part of a “Be The Change” campaign in partnership with Street Art for Mankind (SAM), a New York-based nonprofit. The collection is meant to make the city more attractive to visitors who will come to Detroit for the 2024 NFL draft, and is sponsored by the City of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department, the Downtown Detroit Partnership, and the City Office of Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship (ACE). The program was first reported by Outlier Media.

The Bakpak Durden mural was painted by Australian artist Smug, whose photorealistic work makes it feel like a towering Durden is looking out from the side of the building. Smug did not respond to our interview requests.

Besides the exclusion of Detroit artists, James says the artists commissioned were underpaid, which could undercut the mural market here. She and a group of local artists including Durden, Hubert Massey, and Halima Afi Cassells gathered last week to work on a community benefits agreement and formal process for the City of Detroit to commission mural work going forward. They say they hope to present it to city officials in the coming months so that local artists are prioritized in future projects.

“I’m just trying to get some standards in place,” James says. “We need to start treating this like an industry. A construction job has standards where if a job comes along there is a bid, and process, and formal agreement of how much they are going to get paid.”

The “Be The Change” murals are prominently featured in downtown Detroit on walls ranging from 6,000 to 8,000 square feet. In contrast, Detroit artists who participate in Detroit’s City Walls mural initiative are often given much smaller walls, typically in Detroit neighborhoods outside of the downtown area.

click to enlarge Another mural in the Detroit Be The Change project by Street Art for Mankind. - Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling

Another mural in the Detroit Be The Change project by Street Art for Mankind.

The second phase of Detroit Be The Change will come in 2024, where Detroit artists will join the international artists for three to ten additional murals.

We asked ACE director Rochelle Riley via email whether the City of Detroit has a formal process for commissioning public art. She replied, “I have to refer that question to City Walls, which has been commissioning murals for several years and just celebrated the completion of its 200th mural. ACE plans to begin commissioning murals in 2024.”

On Tuesday morning, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and City Walls project manager Bethany Howard did indeed gather for a press conference to celebrate the 200th mural erected under the program in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. At the conference, Howard clarified to Metro Times the SAM murals were not a City Walls initiative and deferred all questions about them to Riley.

Riley said SAM approached the City of Detroit with the proposed Detroit “Be The Change” project following a collaboration with ACE in 2021 when they brought Mexican muralist Carlos Alberto GH to paint a piece on the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. That project was part of a World Food Program USA partnership in which Detroit was one of six major cities to participate.

A press release says the City of Detroit contributed $140,000 to the Be The Change campaign. With seven murals, this comes out to $20,000 per mural, and between $2 and $3 per square foot. James says the standard rate for mural work is $15 per square foot.

“If you’re setting a standard people can pay little to nothing, you’re literally undoing years and years of work we’ve been doing for artist equity,” James says.

click to enlarge Local artists are looking at ways to ensure all Detroit projects funded by the city have a percentage of Detroit-based artists involved. - Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling

Local artists are looking at ways to ensure all Detroit projects funded by the city have a percentage of Detroit-based artists involved.

Metro Times obtained SAM’s original proposal, which has a budget of $295,000 with $280,000 to be paid for murals. Riley said via email the project had other funders outside the City of Detroit, and that ACE “did NOT contribute ANY funding to the project.”

James also clarifies that she’s always supported City Walls, but the mystery murals downtown opened the door for a broader conversation on inclusion and transparency in procuring public art.

Cassells posed similar concerns in an open letter to City Council President Mary Sheffield.

“We are disappointed to learn that there is a major mural initiative, funded by the City of Detroit that excludes Detroiters and local talent,” Cassells writes. She continues, “The buildings that received murals are owned by Olympia, and so the Ilitches once again benefit from our tax dollars. What was the process for decision making here? Why is the level of accessibility to the bidding and contracting process not transparent and seemingly different for local artists and producers?”

At the meeting of artists, Massey said, “When organizations come through with money to the city for large-scale art projects there should be a committee of artists to review these initiatives.”

James and the other artists are looking at ways to ensure all Detroit projects funded by the city have at least a percentage of Detroit-based artists involved and that rent in neighborhoods with new murals doesn’t increase, displacing current residents.

Riley said the city of Detroit is already ensuring local artists are prioritized, as evidenced by requiring that local artists be included in phase two of the Detroit Be The Change murals.

“That agreement was reached at the project’s inception, although SAM had already planned for it,” she said in an email. “Detroit artists are a part of this project, always were, and will be joining Street Art for Mankind when it returns in April closer to the NFL draft.”

The artists are also proposing creating a community-elected advisory council and a mentorship program for youth with criminal charges for tagging public property with graffiti. Eventually, they hope to form a union for artists.

“While I am disappointed in the activation overall… it gave us the perspective that we needed because we didn’t know that systems weren’t in place,” James says. “A group of us are actively putting language together so we can propose [to] the city what it needs and that’s policy and protocols. Overall we really want agency, transparency, and equity.”

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