An east side arts organization internationally known for its outdoor art exhibits has laid off its staff and paused educational programs amid financial hardships exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Heidelberg Project’s board of directors approved plans Friday to sell its headquarters building on McDougall Street, which contains two buildings and five lots. The proceeds, the organization said in a Monday statement, will be directed toward “maintaining and improving the core art environment” of its outdoor sites in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood.
The decisions are a part of the project’s plan to reorganize and create a new model to ensure its long-term sustainability, Heidelberg’s board chair Andrew Sturm told BridgeDetroit. Sturm said the board began working with the nine-member staff on how to execute the layoffs about a month ago.
“We have fought to keep our staff as long as we could because they are excellent and their work made a difference for Detroit’s youth and artist communities,” Sturm told BridgeDetroit.
The Heidelberg began as a passion project in 1986 by artist Tyree Guyton, who had returned to Detroit from the military and found his childhood neighborhood in decline due to poverty, drugs, and blight. Guyton and his grandfather, Sam Makey, began cleaning vacant lots, and with a paintbrush, began turning streets and abandoned homes into polka dot-lined art sculptures.
Guyton recruited children in the neighborhood to help, and as the organization expanded over the last 37 years, dedication to children and more formal youth programs have been a core focus. One of the programs the organization has put on pause, for example, is the Heidelberg Arts Leadership Academy. Through the program, Heidelberg staffers work with youth in schools across Detroit, focusing on arts, media literacy and career training.
Sturm said the free programs are need-based and Heidelberg has served more than 475 students since 2018, which was challenging even with donations and grant funding. The pandemic only made things tougher.
“During COVID, a lot of that funding pivoted from arts and culture to a lot of health and welfare initiatives, and we haven’t seen that funding come back as strong,” Sturm said. “We’ve held on as long as we can, but we recognize that there’s not enough money coming in to continue the programs in the right way.”
This year, the organization is projected to lose about $281,000 on a $470,000 budget, according to Sturm. Leslie Love, who has been involved with Heidelberg since the 1990s, currently sits on its advisory board. She said that she doesn’t want to point fingers but believes there is enough money out there to help keep the organization afloat. She alluded to the complicated relationship The Heidelberg has had with the city of Detroit over the decades since its inception, which included pushback from residents, city officials and destruction of its properties.
Former mayors Coleman Young and Dennis Archer ordered demolitions of some Heidelberg properties in 1991 and 1999, respectively. In 2015, the Detroit News reported that Heidelberg experienced 12 fires at its properties within a two-year span. Federal authorities suspected arson, but no one was arrested in connection to the fires. In 2019, another fire ripped through the roof of the “You” building on Mt. Elliott.
“I always thought the Heidelberg Project was special and that we had the capacity to allow space for it to exist. But instead, what the city of Detroit did was tear down its buildings,” Love said. “Tyree goes to Australia, Africa, and all these other places, and he’s held up high like he’s a genius. Meanwhile, back at home, they’re calling his stuff garbage and setting it on fire. It’s just really tough to sustain an organization like that when your very own don’t appreciate you.”
While the board of directors work with the project’s advisory board and experts to determine a path forward, it will refocus the organization’s resources to maintaining Guyton’s outdoor art exhibit, which Sturm calls “the core art environment.” This includes two original art houses, the “Numbers House” and the “Dotty Wotty House” on Heidelberg and Elba streets. For decades Heidelberg has provided lawncare to neglected properties adjacent to the art exhibit. Sturm said the organization will continue to do that.
This week Sturm is expected to meet with the Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation, a resident-led organization that manages vacant lots in the McDougall-Hunt area.
“We definitely want to see how we can help,” said Katrina Watkins, founder and executive director of the Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation. “We want to make sure they have the funds to maintain the grounds because safety of our residents is our biggest concern.”
Sturm said the board is still working with O’Connor Realty to determine the selling price for the headquarters. The cash from the sale will go toward maintaining the core art environment.
“It’s hard to say when we would come back with what the new approach would be, but we’re going to take our time and make sure it’s right,” Sturm said. “And I would expect that we would have an update by early next year.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Katrina Watkins is founder and executive director of the Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation.