Detroit, murals, Be The Change, artists, Sydney James

Detroit Artists Overlooked For White International Talent For City’s Murals

According to a report by the Metro Times on Oct. 24, the “Be The Change” campaign, an initiative to enhance Detroit’s appeal by designing seven murals across the city, has caused some controversy among the local artists. The artists commissioned for the project were mostly international, primarily European, and their murals depict Black people.

Local Artists Unhappy

Local Detroit muralist Sydney James has voiced concerns over the murals, pointing out the discrepancy between the treatment of local artists and international artists. She noted that Detroit artists are typically required to engage in community activations and undergo a thorough vetting process, unlike the European artists involved in the “Be The Change” campaign.

“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,’ 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.”

Furthermore, James and other Detroit artists have raised concerns about the pay discrepancy. They argue that the artists commissioned for the project were underpaid, which could negatively affect the mural market in the city. To address these concerns, they are working on a community benefits agreement and a formal process to ensure that local artists are prioritized in future mural projects. They aim to present this proposal to city officials in the coming months.

James stressed the importance of establishing standards in the industry and treating mural art as an essential field, akin to the construction industry, where formal agreements and fair compensation are standard practice.

Prominent Murals Raise Questions

The “Be The Change” murals, ranging from 6,000 to 8,000 square feet in size, have taken a prominent place in downtown Detroit. This contrasts Detroit artists, who typically work on much smaller walls, often located in neighborhoods outside the downtown area.

The second phase of the Detroit “Be The Change” initiative is expected in 2024, where local Detroit artists will collaborate with international artists to create three to 10 additional murals.

When questioned about the formal process for commissioning public art in Detroit, ACE Director Rochelle Riley deferred to City Walls. This separate program has been commissioning murals in the city. Riley also mentioned that ACE plans to begin commissioning murals in 2024.

The controversy surrounding the “Be The Change” murals has sparked discussions on inclusion, transparency, and local involvement in public art projects. Detroit artists are advocating for a percentage of local artists in all city-funded projects, affordability, and avoiding rent increases in neighborhoods with new murals that may displace residents.

While there’s disappointment over the current situation, local artists aim to propose policies and protocols to ensure agency, transparency, and equity in Detroit’s mural projects moving forward.