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Architecture Critic Implores Detroit, "Don't Save The Whales"

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Meet a Curbed Detroit contributor: architecture critic Kelly Ellsworth. From time to time, she brings us detailed arguments about local development, buildings, marketing? or whatever else strikes her fancy. And she's quite fancy.

Detroit's big news of the week was a Whale of a tale via Crain's, which reported that the owners of the David Broderick Tower are inclined to let the giant Wyland whale mural on its side fade away rather than make an effort to have it restored. The news sparked many debates on social media sites where the argument “it's art” (technically true) generally seemed to gain the moral highground over “it's horrible” (also technically true). With friends pitted against friends it seems like someone should take a look at the big picture, so I'm here to set the record straight on why it's time to man the harpoons and hunt those whales into extinction.

First things first: engaging in the “it isn't art” argument is a no-win. As a culture we have fetishized the creation of art to such a degree that by merely putting brush to canvas you can call yourself an artist. I could argue about the lack of originality, the overt sentimentality, the questionable artist statement (Why whales in Detroit? “We're a water planet.”) – all would be rebutted with the argument that I can't define art. So I'm not going to dwell on that.

The biggest argument why there is no need to “save the whales” has a lot to do with Wyland himself. He has managed to turn his love of whale painting into a world-wide enterprise that has grossed as much as $87 million a year, according to Crain's. His highly-commercialized art products are sold in galleries and his imagery is licensed for everything from baby apparel to bank checks. His generous offer to create a more permanent version of the whale image ultimately would create no less of an advertising image than the Verizon banner that sits there today, in the background of every downtown shot during a Tiger's game, except he'd get it for free and in perpetuity. You call it art, I call it ads.

There is nothing about this mural that makes it more significant than any other mural that's been painted in Detroit over the past 40 years. It obviously has a high-profile location, and the figurative rather than abstract subject matter certainly makes it accessible to a broad audience, but is there anything that makes it more significant than, say, the Broadway-Randolph mural that was painted over five years ago, or the Park Shelton mural that sits un-touched-up, partially obscured behind the new parking structure? Or more significant than any of the other half-dozen murals by working artists that sit chipping and fading away around downtown?

It is Detroit's way to get a mural and then let it gently decay, so the inaction on the part of the Broderick Tower owners cannot be seen as neglect, only standard operating procedure. Had they decided they wanted to keep the mural and had it touched up - or replaced with the image on ceramic tiles like the artist has offered - that certainly would have been fine, but they are in no way the bad guys in this scenario.

As a matter of fact, letting it fade away seems to be the right thing to do. It's an image that had its moment during downtown's darkest days, bringing yet another random “what the ? ?” moment to an area full of “what the ? ?” moments. But the times they are a-changin', and it's best to let the David Broderick Tower be known by it's name now, and not as “the building with the whales on it.”

— Kelly Ellsworth

· Whales Away! Broderick Tower To Let Mural Fade, Disappear [Curbed Detroit]
· Previous Posts by Kelly Ellsworth [Curbed Detroit]

Broderick Tower

10 Witherell St., Detroit, MI 48226