- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2011

DETROIT (AP) - A nonprofit group is trying to restore Detroit’s status in the art world by drawing artists to an unlikely place: a century-old former bank in a neighborhood so infested with crime that some of the building’s pipes were stolen and its windows riddled with bullets.

If the museum takes root, organizers hope galleries and other businesses follow, potentially transforming the downtrodden area in the same way art houses famously changed the Chelsea and SoHo neighborhoods of New York City.

Tate Osten, a Russian-born art consultant, and a group of volunteers have spent months rehabbing the old Detroit Savings Bank branch and are days away from opening their first exhibition.

Their group, called Kunsthalle Detroit (pronounced KOONST-hah-leh, or German for “art hall”), aims to improve the city not only aesthetically, but economically.

“Such a metropolitan city as Detroit has to be on the cultural map of the world like it was 100 years ago,” Osten said. “And that’s basically what triggered me and my friends and colleagues to put our minds together to create this institution.”

A decades-long exodus has left Detroit with hundreds of vacant structures, which have drawn out-of-town artists seeking what they regard as a blank canvas.

But this canvas is heavily blighted, too. Waist-high grass fills the abandoned lot across the street. The few nearby buildings being actively used include a junkyard, an auto shop, a church and a grocery store with a roof encircled in barbed wire. Detroit’s skyline towers in the distance.

A few steps from an entrance to the main exhibition hall is a bus stop where, on a recent day, a man waiting for his ride ambled around the side of the building and relieved himself against a back wall in plain view of the street.

“It’s a bad area,” Osten acknowledged. “We pretty much cannot take the graffiti off (the exterior of the building), because it was painted by local gangs. I’ve heard very bad stories. Every now and then, we hear a shooting. I had guys approaching me who would advise me not to be here in this area without a gun.”

Thieves broke in about a year ago and swiped video projectors, DVD players and tools. Despite the setbacks, Osten believes this is a good location and that most passers-by are just curious about what’s happening inside.

The museum has installed a surveillance system and will bring in security guards for its inaugural exhibition, which is to open Friday. It includes works from about a dozen artists, including Sebastian Diaz Morales and Hans Op de Beeck.

Painter Donald Cronkhite, who lives in the suburb of Allen Park, said Osten’s effort is exciting because “someone is realizing the need for a place like this and is willing to take a chance putting it in Detroit.”

In the past, “many artists felt like they had to leave Detroit and to go to New York or Chicago in order to make it in the art world, but the artists are coming back.” Many of them are buying vacant homes and renovating them for studio space.

Beginning in the 1960s, SoHo drew scores of artists who turned the forgotten industrial wasteland into a creative mecca. In the years that followed, some of the nation’s most influential contemporary artists lived there. Chelsea made a similar transformation of its own, changing from a district known for factories and warehouse piers to a hub for art, with hundreds of galleries.

Osten’s fledgling nonprofit museum is not far from the 125-year-old Detroit Institute of Arts and about the same distance from the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, which opened in a gutted former Dodge dealership in 2007.

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