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This text is by Jennifer Junkermeier and Dolores S. Slowinski in their capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

Detroit is always Present

An Interview with Dolores Slowinski

Jennifer Junkermeier

On September 6, 2013 "The Past Is Present," a group exhibition curated by Jens Hoffmann, opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.  The exhibition, inspired in part by the 80th Anniversary of Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals, was made up of 14 freestanding "murals" each conceived by 16 international artists.  The artists were asked to base the themes of their murals on events from the last 80 years of Detroit's history. Once conceived the murals were then painted by Detroit based artists.  In September 2013 Art in America published a full page "brief" of the exhibition, titled "Detroit Up Against the Wall" where the exhibition was described and Hoffmann quoted.  The exhibition along with this AiA brief triggered a slew of criticisms, questions and some heated debates.  

Following "The Past Is Present" opening and the AiA brief, writer, artist and Detroit native Dolores Slowinski (fig. 1), wrote a letter to the editor of AiA Lindsay Pollock in response to the brief outlining what she saw as the shortcomings of the exhibition, readings of Detroit history and of understanding the impact of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals on the city and its psyche.  Slowinski's letter was published and given a full page in the November 2013 issue of AiA.  Following these events Slowinski was invited by MOCAD for an hour long meeting with Hoffmann during a public event titled Brown Bag Lunch - Curators’ Forum held November 6, 2013 at MOCAD.  This is where I first met Slowinski and learned of what had transpired.  

What these events unearthed for me was the clarity of a city grappling with itself.  Both internally and externally Detroit is trying to figure out how it will be defined in the post-bankruptcy era, at the very least within the international art world.  In light of an exhibition that seemed to haphazardly stray from its intent (despite how well intentioned) and was critiqued with national coverage what surfaced was Detroit and its art community’s need and want to have a voice in how it will be defined.  The art world is watching and if there was ever a time to have a critical public discussion, it's now. Not whether you are in favor of this exhibition or against it but because it is a sign of things to come.

Slowinski and I met shortly after November 6 to discuss the show and her letter to AiA.   An interview followed, conducted both in person and through email correspondence.   Below is a part of that interview.

figure 1

Dolores S. Slowinski

Dolores Slowinski
photo courtesy Dolores Slowinski

For over 40 years, Dolores Slowinski has worked in the Michigan and Detroit art scene including tenures at the Saginaw Art Museum, Michigan Artrain, Michigan Council for the Arts, Michigan Museums Association and Detroit Institute of Arts.  She has written about art for more than 25 years for national and mid-western art publications including  journals, e-zines, and local alternative newspapers such as:  American Ceramics, Art in America, Ceramics Monthly, Detroit Artists Market Journal of Exhibitions, Detroit Focus Quarterly, Dialogue: An Art Journal, thedetroiter.com, MetroTimes, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Michigan Photography Journal, and The New Art Examiner

Jennifer Junkermeier: I'd like to begin by asking you about your own history in Detroit.  In doing so, I'd like to ask if you could talk about this history through your experience with Diego Rivera's work, specifically the Detroit Industry murals, and how your close ties with Detroit influenced your relationship with it. You are a Detroit native who grew up in Detroit and watched it changed. How did you first come to know Rivera's Detroit Industry Murals? How does your history in Detroit (both personal and work) influence your experience and relationship with Rivera's murals and work?

Dolores Slowinski: Detroit, the automotive industry, and the Detroit Industry murals have been uniquely interwoven with my life experiences.

My Eastern European immigrant ancestry in Detroit goes back over 100 years.  My grandparents came to Detroit in the early 20th century.  My parents (fig. 2) were both born in Detroit and worked in the factories.  My father was a machine repairman for General Motors for over 40 years.  I grew up in a tightly knit, Polish-American, working class neighborhood on Detroit’s west side just two miles from the Rouge complex (Ford Motor Company Rouge Complex) in Dearborn, MI.

figure 2

Dolores S. Slowinski's with parents in 1958 westside Detroit

Slowinski's Father, Mother and Dolores Slowinski, 1958, west side Detroit
photo courtesy Dolores Slowinski

When I was young our family toured the Rouge complex as well as Fisher Body, plant 14, where my father worked.   A factory tour in the 1950s was not the sanitized version of today.  The old tours exposed us to the heat, stench, grime, and noise of the factory, the way the workers experienced it.  We walked the catwalks above the foundry and under the conveyor belts as well as on the factory floor.  It was an indelible and unforgettable experience.

In 1960, at age 13, a friend and I ventured, independently not with school,  to the Detroit Institute of Arts.  We took two busses to get to the museum, walked up the front steps, through the Great Hall, and then stepped into Rivera Court (fig. 3).  One look at Rivera's murals and my heart started pounding.  I had vivid flashbacks to those factory tours.  The noise, grit, heat, and smell of sweat came flooding back.  Terrified, I ran crying from the room into the ancient art galleries.  Rivera had taught me the power of art.

In 1979 as the Executive Director of the Michigan Museums Association I was provided an office by the Detroit Institute of Arts Education Department through the generosity of Linda Bank Downs, Head of Education at the DIA.  Linda had recently updated the gallery sheet on the Detroit Industry murals and was determined to find the cartoons that Rivera made for some of the panels.  My office was a cubicle overlooking the North Court when the Rivera cartoons were discovered and unrolled on the floor of that interior court.  It was a momentous discovery that prompted Downs to begin initiating plans for a major retrospective of Rivera’s work.

figure 3

Diego River Murals at Detroit Institute of Arts

Diego Rivera Murals at Detroit Institute of Arts
photo courtesy http://www.heymiller.com/2013/06/diego-rivera-2/

In 1982/83, 50 years after Rivera painted the Detroit Industry murals I was hired to work in the DIA photography department to number the nitrate negatives of the documentary photographs taken at the Rouge complex as reference photos for Rivera and to examine the contact prints matching the images with the appropriate panels of the murals. 

In mid-1984, Downs asked me to serve as the photo-researcher for the 1986 Rivera Retrospective exhibition.  It was wonderful meeting scholars, gallery owners and collectors associated with Rivera’s life and work and to see more of the works in person.

Downs, now a recognized Rivera scholar, moved on (at the time) to become Head of Education at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.  I was returning from a vacation trip to Tanzania with a stopover in D.C. in 1999 when Downs picked me up at the airport and asked if I might proofread her manuscript Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals.  It was as if Rivera welcomed me back to the U.S.! 

I have been called back to the DIA several times as a volunteer consultant to research and identify the industrial processes in Rivera's sketchbook images as recorded by the DIA during research for the 1986 Rivera retrospective. 

It is this close relationship with Detroit and the Detroit Industry murals that prompted me to attend the opening of The Past Is Present (figs. 4 - 6) at MOCAD.  I was eager to see how Jens Hoffmann would honor the 80th anniversary of the murals and how Rivera’s murals would inspire the work of the artists in the exhibition.

JJ: Why did you to write a letter to the editor of Art in America, Lindsay Pollock?

DS: I was deeply disappointed with The Past Is Present as an exhibition.

It appeared that Jens Hoffmann, the curator, neither understood the importance of the Rivera murals to Detroit nor respected the invited artists by inviting them to fulfill an assignment: to research preselected events from in the last 80 years of Detroit history and then to design murals (actually free-standing 9’ x 12’ paintings on wood panels to be painted by local artists) depicting the event they chose. (This was disclosed at the Nov. 6 Curators’ Forum where Hoffmann explained that 40 historic events were selected and researched by MOCAD staff.  It was from this list that artists were asked to choose the theme of their mural.)

I wondered why artists who were not painters, and who’d never been to Detroit would agree to participate in an exhibition with such parameters. 

Unfortunately I could not attend the panel discussion after the show opened.  I probably would have accepted the show as an unfortunate event had I not read the full page news item “The Brief” in the September issue of Art in America

The brief stated that artists “are revisiting Rivera’s murals by creating some of their own for a timely exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD).”  Jens Hoffmann’s credentials as deputy director of New York’s Jewish Museum and role as adjunct curator of MOCAD were stated and the show was described as featuring “15 new murals commemorating episodes in Detroit’s history over the 80 years since Rivera completed his masterpiece.” 

Hoffmann was quoted, “I asked the artists to imagine what Rivera might have painted if he were to remake Detroit Industry today.”  Hoffmann goes on to explain the use of murals in presenting political subjects; muralists’ use of assistants in rendering the work, and the resemblance of explanatory labels in the shape of historical markers.

The brief concludes by explaining that the impermanence of these murals reflects “shifting attitudes about how to represent history.” 

A whole different scenario began to emerge beyond celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Rivera murals. An internationally recognized curator brings internationally recognized artists to Detroit, the conflicted, bankrupt and empty metropolis, to leave their mark on the city.  

It was a balloon of opportunism disguised as a convoluted, intellectual exercise of revisiting Detroit’s history and commemorating it in paint on wood to honor Diego Rivera; of failing to bring the artists to Detroit; and the overall disappointing work that was presented that prompted me to write to Lindsay Pollock at Art in America.  I felt I had to point out the shortcomings of the exhibition from conception to execution.  It simply was not as grand as what Hoffmann described in the AiA brief.

JJ: In what ways do you feel the exhibition "The Past Is Present" failed?

DS: “The Past Is Present” fails in more ways than I could point out in my letter.

Hoffmann asked the artists to imagine what Rivera would have painted if he were to remake Detroit Industry today.  Then Hoffman explains that the temporary murals in the show are commemorating historic events that occurred in Detroit in the last 80 years since Detroit Industry was completed.
Well which is it?

Rivera painted a fresco of what was going on in Detroit, at the Ford Motor Company Rouge Complex, in 1932-33. If he were remaking it today, he would be looking at what is going on in Detroit now.  He would not be looking back to commemorate some event that had happened 80 years ago.

Rivera not only came to Detroit, he lived here with his pregnant wife, Frida Kahlo, and his assistants, while he executed the murals.

Rivera was a classically trained artist who told stories in the biggest, most stable, long-lasting format available.  If he were to remake Detroit Industry today perhaps he would have made a film, or used spray paint instead of pigment and plaster, or collaborated to create a huge digital billboard.  Whatever he did, I think it is safe to say, it would have been bigger than 9’ x 12’.

figures 4 - 6

The Past is Present at MOCAD

The Past is Present at MOCAD

The Past is Present at MOCAD

The Past Is Present at MOCAD, 6 September 2013 - 5 January 2014
curated by Jens Hoffmann

Even if Hoffmann argues that the work in the show was intended to be impermanent, many Detroiters could tell him of the murals painted on very large walls executed by sign painters working from national and international artists’ renderings; by community members working with local artists to commemorate their history; by a plethora of graffiti artists flocking to Detroit to beautify it, that have been painted over…even on the outside walls of MOCAD (fig. 7)!  If there is anything that Detroit understands, it is impermanence.

figure 7


MOCAD facing Woodward Avenue. DONT, VIZIE, POSE, OMENS, REVOK, and SKREW, NEKST Murals, 2013

In his catalog introduction, Hoffmann places MOCAD in the position of commissioning “a group of international artists to conceive 14 new murals for the city,” as if this was a new concept.   Hadn’t Hoffmann driven up Grand River or around Eastern Market to see all the new, murals that have been bestowed upon Detroit by graffiti artists who actually came to Detroit to claim walls?  From 2001-2004, the Coca Cola Corporation sponsored “Art in Harmony”, an art competition for Detroit high school students to design murals that were painted in locations around the city.

Hoffmann states that the artists (plural)…”explored its archives, and visited its libraries,” when in fact MOCAD staff assisted with the research thus filtering  Detroit history through Hoffmann and MOCAD staff to the invited artists.  Anyone can do research online these days and access documents through interlibrary loans or contact research institutions themselves for assistance.  Only one artist came to Detroit before the exhibition.

Hoffman continues: “…to offer new discourses that connect the city’s challenges and triumphs with larger global issues.” 

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla enlarged the July 14, 1995 front pages of The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press (fig. 8).  These pages were published using replacement workers the day after 2,500 newspaper employees walked off the job on the first day of what became a 5 year newspaper strike. Supposedly this juxtaposition points out the failures of the workers and places the struggle in a global context.  Nothing is said of how the strike affected the subsequent circulation of the newspapers so that they are merely a shadow of their former selves.  All media reporting puts local events in a global context.  You don’t need an enlarged newspaper page to tell you that.  You can see it on newspaper front pages, in news magazines, in electronic media, as well as hear it in your audio medium of choice. That is what news media is supposed to do.  This piece added nothing new to the discourse about the subject.

figure 8

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, The Past is Present

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla
Today, 2013

He continues: “…They examine art’s relationship to history and politics and ask how much art---and museums---might participate in the creation of civic history and identity. ….What are the responsibilities and possibilities of art in situations of severe crisis? ...It is part of an attempt to understand the past, and build a future that is ready to face the challenges of a complex and often embattled global society.” 

Creating a painting long distance hardly qualifies the artists as participating in and creating Detroit’s civic history and identity.  Socially engaged artists in Detroit are buying houses, hosting visiting artists, working with the community in starting urban gardens, rehabbing buildings, paying taxes, rent, and utilities, living in the city, voting in elections, working with the homeless, training the unskilled, hiring them and stabilizing lives.  THAT is what creates civic history and identity.  Detroit artists are not only taking responsibility for improving their community, but are also setting an example for and in dialogue with global society.  In 2007, MOCAD was the location for the US debut of an exhibition called “Shrinking Cities” that involved artists from Germany, the US, Russia, and England that examined in great depth and detail the dilemma of shrinking post-industrial cities in each country.  Anyone who attended that exhibition would find The Past Is Present laughable in comparison.

Detroit has always existed in a global context.  It is re-inventing itself so the world can learn from its failures.  Talk to any auto worker who is going back to school to learn new skills to get a job to support a family and try to pay the monthly bills. 

figure 9

Claire Fontaine The Past is Present

Claire Fontaine
Untitled (Congregation), 2013

figure 10

Andrea Bowers, The Past is Present

Andrea Bowers
We Deserve More (Fast Food Workers' Rally for Fair Wages, Detroit MI, May 2013), 2013

Claire Fontaine’s enlargement of a 1941 postcard of the Detroit Zoo polar bear exhibit (fig. 9) brings to mind the Detroit Zoo’s dramatic moated exhibits, an historic innovation among zoos in the 1920s. Without the explanatory label, the artist’s misconception would never be understood.  Unemployed auto workers today are more akin to chameleons transforming themselves and adapting to their changing environment to stay alive, than endangered polar bears.

Andrea Bowers' painting, We Deserve More (fig. 10), alluding to the May, 2013 D15 strike by fast food workers in Detroit asking for a $15.00/hour wage should have been a banner that could have accompanied local workers to their continuing rallies.  The movement is ongoing.  Engaging with striking workers would have taken the artist’s work onto the street where it would attract attention rather than being sequestered in a museum gallery.

The catalogue cover is based on the flag of Detroit.  The title of the show appears in the center within the area taken by Detroit’s seal. That implies very strongly, I think, that the exhibition is about Detroit’s past affecting the present.  Inside the catalogue, each work is accompanied by two groups of paragraphs, one labeled Past, is above another labeled Present.  The Past does not refer to Detroit’s past as one might expect, but rather to the past accomplishments of the invited artists.  The Present is an explanation of what the invited artist is attempting to do with the event he or she selected from the most recent 80 years of Detroit’s past. 

Ultimately the show is less about Detroit and more about the artists and the curator under the guise of a quasi-historical approach.

JJ: In the September 2013 AiA brief "Detroit Up Against The Wall," Hoffmann is quoted as saying that "History is not something that has to be fixed..., it can be changeable and our images of it can be temporary."  Could you respond to this statement in juxtaposition to your lived history of Detroit, your images of historical Detroit and the "images" that Rivera left for us in Detroit Industry?

DS: History, as it is lived, is full of changes.  As it is recorded it becomes fact. 

If a neighborhood is demolished to make way for a factory or a freeway, the deed is done.  The loss of people, housing and businesses is a fact. The new factory or freeway, likewise become facts.  These facts don’t change.

The corporation or municipality will view the event with pride at having acquired the land in the name of efficiency and progress.  They will present the facts in their favor.

The displaced families being forced to leave cohesive neighborhoods will not see the event as progress but as corporate domination.  The pain may be dulled over time, but the bitter taste will remain in the memory. They will also present the facts in their favor.

The interpretation of the facts of history makes for very different stories.

Interpretation by individuals outside of the events can bring new insights into history, but I think it must be done very carefully.  A one-off image may not carry the credibility that a more sustained effort coupled with on-the-ground experience would.

Anyone who has lived in Detroit for as long as I have has seen it change.  We have witnessed urban renewal projects go unfinished after tearing down neighborhoods; factories built only to have the number of shifts cut and promised jobs never materialize; the school system decimated and re-organized with little change in outcome.  Downtown developers have been rewarded with tax abatements but for residents of neglected neighborhoods there have been no such abatements or reprieves.  Foreclosure notices are posted; the sheriff and the dumpster arrive.  People are displaced.  We have become skeptical of prosperity after years of empty promises, corruption and scandal. 

Young people half my age, who are moving back to Detroit, grew up knowing the city only as a decaying hulk.  Their image of Detroit is entirely different than mine.  They will have other events that will become fixed in their memories.  Their stories will be told from still another perspective.

Rivera, in Detroit Industry shows us a continuum of life:  the resources of the earth and the labyrinthine process of manufacturing all tied together by toiling human beings.  The lesson of continuity, work, and connectedness is as understandable today as it was 80 years ago and will continue to be understood far into the future.

Continuity, work, and connectedness: all of our stories will be a part of the history of Detroit.  Even this. It’s our job to keep telling the story and making sure voices are heard.

JJ: What role do you think should or could the past take in the present for art being made or being shown in Detroit?

DS: If an artist wants to look to Detroit’s past, mine it, or criticize it within his or her art, they are free to do so. 

It is up to each artist to determine the content or non-content of her/his work, to research it; to select the medium in which to work; to decide just how she/he wants to present it. 

I don’t think a curator or exhibition maker should be the one to tell an artist what to do.  I have always had problems with assignment shows.  I consider it demeaning.

None of us exist in a vacuum.  Our relationship with Detroit will in some way influence what we do, how we do it, what we say, how we say it.  Place and time always have some kind of impact on your work.

* all photos courtesy stephen garrett dewyer except where otherwise noted.

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