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Students with backpacks outside a brick building. To the right is a long wall painted in orange and brown geometrical shapes.
Rendering of a section of the mural outside Southeastern High School.
City of Detroit

Detroit mural project outside FCA plant sparks concerns about ‘artwashing’

Over 150 Detroit artists have signed a petition in protest of the mural, saying it would “cover up” injustices

A number of artists are criticizing the city of Detroit and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) for their approach towards a new mural project, describing it as “artwashing.”

In February, the city put out a global call to artists for a mural to be painted on the wall at Beniteau Street outside FCA’s expanded plant on the east side, calling it “one of the largest municipal art installations” in the city’s history. In total, seven sections of the wall will become a canvas for a 15-foot-high mural spanning 1,500 feet.

“This wonderful gift from FCA is just another example of how much arts and culture are alive and well—and thriving here,” Rochelle Riley, the city’s Director of Arts and Culture, said in a release.

The mural was one feature of the Community Benefits Agreement negotiated with FCA as part of the $2.5 billion expansion of its Mack Avenue facilities. In the agreement, the automaker committed to $7.1 million in infrastructure improvements along Beniteau Street that included “wall construction and beautification.”

But many Detroit artists believe the mural project is an effort to use art to mask injustices with the massive development. “We don’t want artists’ services being used to create something beautiful that’s a facade for corporate interests,” says Halima Cassells, a Detroit-based artist and community activist. “Look at who benefits; it’s not the community.”

The development is expected to create around 5,000 new jobs, of which Detroiters get priority in applying. FCA has also committed $18.8 million in workforce training and job readiness. (The company got over $400 million in tax incentives from the state and city for the expansion.)

A big sign in an open field that says Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly. Photo by Cybelle Codish

But residents still have concerns about air quality from increased activity at the plant. After saying FCA’s air monitoring and mitigation plan was insufficient, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s Air Quality Division recently determined it was satisfactory after the company revised its plan.

Many residents also feel that another item in the Community Benefits Agreement, a $15,000 grant allocated per household for home repairs, is insufficient. Kat Jones, who has lived on Beniteau Street most of her life, says her neighbors are suffering from poverty, asthma, and other issues, and that the money won’t even be enough to mitigate harm from the plant’s expansion.

“It’s fluff,” Jones says of the grant. “It does nothing to fix the deeper issues in this community. It’s like a bandaid over a bullet wound.”

Cassells created a petition calling for a boycott of the mural from Detroit artists. The statement reads, in part, “We refuse to participate in the mural project unless the city and FCA meet the neighbors’ demands addressing damage to their health and homes.” It’s been signed by over 150 local artists.

Some of the demands from local organizers Just Beniteau Residents—of which Jones is a member—include additional money for home repair or relocation and more transparent community engagement.

But not every resident is against the mural. Darnell Gardner, another nearly lifelong resident of Beniteau Street, was a member of the Neighborhood Advisory Council who negotiated on behalf of residents. He shares some of the neighborhood’s frustration with the community benefits process, calling it “messy and rushed.” (The agreement was finalized in a little over one month.)

But ultimately, he says, this is the first sign of investment and attention his neighborhood has seen in decades, and welcomes any beautification efforts. “If tearing down these houses that need to be torn down, if filling in lots with gardens, if putting up a mural that’s larger than anything in the city is destroying the neighborhood, then I don’t know what is,” Gardner says.

“I want everyone to get more [money],” he adds. “But as far as protesting a mural? That’s just unacceptable.”

Part of the mural will be outside Southeast High School, and Letty Azar, the city’s manager for District 4, feels like it’s an opportunity to engage students and add something poignant and attractive.

“This could be a healing project in a neighborhood and city that has experienced trauma in recent times,” she says. “This could be a point of catharsis and artistic expression.”

But ultimately, Jones and Cassells simply don’t believe the city will do real community engagement to create something with sensitivity.

“What kind of message are they going to put on it? A halo? A peace sign?” Jones says. “I don’t trust they’re going to be diligent and reach out to locals.”

An official call for artists to apply to participate in the mural went out on February 14, and the selection committee will choose an artist or team by June 1. The city says more than 200 artists from around the world have expressed interest in participating.

The project is expected to be completed by October this year.