Black Art Matters: ACE, Knight Foundation, MOCAD, Others Bring Cultural Touch to the ‘Paris of the Midwest’

Art is their why. Their reasoning behind promoting it and why visionaries are inspired by it.


Art in Detroit, in particular Black art, is an evolving, timeless movement that includes homegrown painter LeRoy Foster, born in 1925, to the poets and artists of various media of today holding it down in their own artistic right, painting political and cultural murals, inspiring works of oil and words, and more.


That is why during Black History Month, Black art, while still celebrated the other 11 months, is especially looked upon and admired with a bevy of events, causes, and exhibitions on tap around the city.

Director of Arts and Culture for the city of Detroit Rochelle Riley told The Michigan Chronicle about what’s on tap this month and throughout 2021.


Recently, Kresge Arts in Detroit donated $176,000 in operating funds to support Detroit ACE (Arts, Culture & Entrepreneurship) programming. The year-long partnership is aptly titled, “Undefeated: A Year of Celebrating Detroit Arts, Culture and Detroit’s Contributions to American Excellence.” The programming kicks off this month featuring how the pandemic has impacted children through artistic projects, monthly showcases and beyond.


“The thing that is happening right now with Detroit is it is making an amazing recovery from a time where it literally went into bankruptcy, came out on the other side of bankruptcy, and is whole again. While everybody has been focused on the finances, I want to make sure we stay whole culturally and artistically,” Riley said, adding that the roughly 80 percent Black city is continuing to grow and she wants to ensure the arts and the artists receive all the shine they deserve.


“We have been known for decades as the ‘Paris of the Midwest’ because everything exists here: fine arts, fashion, theater, film, poetry,” she said. “So much of that is being done ingeniously, I mean just beautifully by African American residents, artists.”


“Undefeated” will feature monthly showcases highlighting a variety of artistic genres.

One of the showcases gives 10 Detroit children a chance to be paired with 10 students from the local InsideOut Detroit Youth Literary Arts program who will teach the students how to write poetry and spoken word about the pandemic. Later all 20 students will be matched with musicians from the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra to create duets.


Detroit ACE will also launch Detroit A & E (previously Channel 22) with a Black Heritage Film Series featuring Black films from the 1920s to the 1960s at 7 p.m. Monday-Friday.


“This celebration of Black History Month is a moment for us to celebrate that culture and that special unique thing and we will be continuing all year (to celebrate) all art of all genres,” Riley said.


For more information and upcoming programming visit or email Riley at

Nathaniel Wallace, director of the Community and National Initiatives Program for Knight Foundation, is also a powerhouse on the art scene looking to bring greater awareness to local Black artists.


“At Knight, it’s my mission to find those ideas, those fearless individuals who can move Detroit forward,” he told The Michigan Chronicle. “As Detroiters start to create their own vision for the city, we need Black art and its Black artists.”


Wallace quoted American author bell hooks (spelled lowercase on purpose) by saying it is, “An artist’s job is to do more than tell it like it is, it’s to imagine what’s possible.”


“Detroit doesn’t move forward without their vision and critique, and that’s why I go hard for them. With anything I’m involved in whether it be Knight, boards or advisory positions, the question will always be, ‘How do we fold our Black artist into this?’” Wallace said. “Because I truly believe in the transformative power of their work, not only for an individual or neighborhood but for an entire city.”


Wallace, who is a local Black art aficionado, collects art from Black artists and has a special place in his heart for those especially from Detroit.


“I am interested in the Detroiter perspective on things… we need to be more involved in storytelling … Telling stories and collecting art is important; something I champion.”


One piece of art at his home, in particular, stands out to Wallace, whose backdrop during a video interview displayed warm, colorful artistic pieces, figurines, and more. Offscreen, he had displayed a piece that he cherishes from a local artist called “Black Madonna.”


“It just shows the grace and the poise and the importance of Black women … and their importance to the world,” he said.

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) is also gearing up with its Winter 2021 exhibitions including the MOCAD Black Art Library exhibits with over 200 niche texts on Black artistry in its first museum show February 5-April 18.


Founded in 1995, MOCAD has featured exhibitions and programs that delve into contemporary art, bridging Detroit with the global art world. MOCAD intends to use art to express itself to nurture social change and human understanding, reflecting the local community. The exhibitions cut across genres and media but are all “united loosely around the continued drive for social justice, racial equity, and collective liberation,” according to its mission.

From “Black Art Library” to “Leni Sinclair: Motor City Underground,” “Detroit Narrative Agency: Radical Remedies” and more, the programming showcases MOCAD’s commitment to exhibiting boundary-pushing, historically significant work by diverse artists across stages of their careers from Detroit and beyond, according to the museum.


“Motor City Underground” will be the first solo presentation of iconic photographer Leni Sinclair’s work in a U.S. museum. Notably known as a local leftist legend and the camerawoman who captured rockstars in the early ‘60s, Sinclair is both an artist and activist.


Also on tap is “Black Art Library,” the first museum exhibition of Detroit native Asmaa Walton’s public archive of books that speak to the breadth of astounding Black talent throughout art history. Beginning as a Black History Month experiment last year, Black Art Library has become a treasured resource for filling in the blind spots in often-whitewashed art history.


Walton, Black Art Library founder, told The Michigan Chronicle about her thoughts on Black art.


“Detroit is such a culturally rich city that it only makes sense for projects centered in art and creativity to exist here. There is art all around the city but what’s lacking is the intentional education behind it. The more arts resources that are created the more future generations will be able to discover interests and passions that they never knew they had before.”


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