Michigan Avenue billboards turned into public art

August 7th, 2017
Michigan Avenue Business Association director Dan Commer stands by a billboard at the corner of Michigan Ave. and 25th in Detroit on Tues., July 25, 2017 with art work by Nicole Macdonald as part of a project featuring different artists each month by displaying their artwork to beautify the business district. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

Southwest Solutions’ Dan Commer is acting director of the Michigan Avenue Business Association (MABA), which organized this billboard art project featured in the Free Press. MABA is a group of business owners and community stakeholders devoted to the revitalization of an underutilized section of Michigan Avenue between I-96 and Wyoming.

Michigan Avenue billboards turned into public art

Darlene A. White
Detroit Free Press
August 6, 2017

“We got started because we wanted to use the principle of crowd funding as a community development tool,” said Katie Lorah, ioby communications and creative strategy director.

“We are an online platform that anyone around the country can use,” she said. “We work with anyone. You don’t have to be an established group. We just want to help people in neighborhoods with great ideas improve their community. If they need volunteers or donations, we can direct them to the right resources.”

Started in 2009, ioby now has 17 staff members with offices in Detroit, Memphis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It has raised more than $3.5 million to fund 1,217 civic projects.

Commer said his goal was to make Michigan Avenue more vibrant.

“When I first started my position at Michigan Avenue Business Association in 2015, my main priority was to meet every single business owner on Michigan Avenue in person,” he said. “I sent out a survey that would help me get a better understanding of what owners wanted in the community.”

The No. 1 response: “Vacancy and blight are detracting from the area’s safety and appearance.”

Commer said with the business owners’ feedback in mind, he came across a vacant lot on Michigan Avenue that grabbed his attention.

“This vacant lot had a billboard which was next to Hygrade Deli and Holding House art space,” he said. “I started to think … ‘What could we do with this empty billboard?’ That’s when it hit me…. ‘Billboard art.’”

After doing a little research, Commer learned that Philadelphia successfully developed a similar idea using billboards as works of art to revitalize the city. He wanted to take the idea and apply it to vacant areas on the stretch of Michigan Avenue and the Core City neighborhood.

“I focused on different ways to raise money to support the idea of billboard art, because I never actually led a group fund-raiser,” he said.

Then he discovered ioby.

Since the Detroit launch in July 2015, two staff members — Detroit action strategists Rhiannon Chester and Joe Rashid — oversee ioby’s Midtown Detroit site in the TechTown building.

Together, they have successfully funded more than 30 projects around the city of Detroit including Parker Village Shines — a solar streetlight project in Highland Park.

Jackson Koeppel, project coordinator for Parker Village Shines, says his experience with the Detroit team was incredible.

“Joe and Rhi were always there with training, support and resources to make everything run smoothly,” he said. “They made it way easier to be successful, because they care about the people and their projects.”

Rashid worked with Commer to create a national campaign to raise enough money to secure the billboard art space for July and August and provide a stipend to local artists.

In late June, the collective reached its funding goal of $2,713 in just three weeks.

Southwest Solutions was one of the first sponsors for the art project, starting with a vacant lot at 25th and Michigan Avenue in southwest Detroit. They also offered a stipend for an artist.

Residents from the community are thrilled about the changes.
“It’s a good look for our neighborhood,” said 37-year-old Detroit resident Tanisha Walker. “I like that I am able to see real artwork just down the street from my house.”

The billboards will dot the stretch of Michigan between I-96 and Wyoming. The project’s theme: “Reclaiming the Sky.”

Holding House co-directors Andrea Eckhert-Tonning and Nate Tonning recently put out a call for artists to submit their work. A panel of community residents judged the designs.

The winning artists were Marty Winters and Nicole Macdonald. The artists were awarded a $500 honorarium for their contribution to the project.

“I’m happy that the project reached its goal and is getting national attention,” said Rashid. “The art activates space and is making something cool and positive for the community. “

Commer says he is excited for the future of the project.

“I look forward to seeing a safer area for walking and for the businesses in the area,” he said. “I’m also glad to see that emerging artists are getting the opportunity to showcase their work.”

To learn more about ioby’s civic crowd funding go to ioby.org/campaign/detroit.

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