Williams College Museum of Art, students work to revive Detroit neighborhood with art

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The Williams College Museum of Art and a number of students have joined an international think tank to help build a culturally, financially and environmentally self-sustainable community in a nearly vacant neighborhood in Detroit.

They left for Detroit last weekend after welcoming members of an Indonesian think tank who will also be part of the effort.

Along with WCMA and the Williams College students, the Ghana ThinkTank is enlisting the aid of three members of the Lifepatch Think Tank from Indonesia and three more from the Moroccan Think Tank in the project.

The goal, said Maria del Carmen Montoya, a principal in the Ghana Think Tank, is to take three adjacent buildings in a largely abandoned neighborhood and repurpose them as apartments and small businesses. The spaces will be reoriented toward a common courtyard, similar to a Moroccan riad, leading the residents to a more communal lifestyle, enhancing communication and social interaction resulting in a more cooperative and functional community.

The project is known as the American Riad.

Members of the think tanks will take the ingenuity they have used to solve problems in their communities and apply them here to enhance systems to supply clean water, food and energy to the community.

Upon their arrival from Indonesia last week, members of Lifepatch gave a presentation of some of their work back home, like helping local communities find new cheap ways to filter river water.

Public art installations will add to the social patterns and interactions among the community members. The concept is based on a Moroccan model, and the artistic installation will include a riad column designed by the Moroccan think tank assembled at WCMA. It has resided there temporarily until it was disassembled and transported to Detroit by the team members.

The project flips the traditional pattern of a "developed" country aiding "developing" countries, by seeking problem solvers in the "developing" countries to solve problems in the "developed" country.

"It gives us the opportunity to see ourselves in a very different mirror," Montoya said.

The connection between WCMA and Ghana Think Tank came about as a result of the Williams College initiative to confront climate change, according to Sonnet Coggins, associate director for academic and public engagement for WCMA and project director for the collaboration between Ghana Think Tank and WCMA,

In thinking about ways to contribute to the school's climate effort, museum director Tina Olsen quickly turned to the Ghana Think Tank.

"We felt that their practice and approach to making art — and their global perspective — would not only add a rich dimension to the campus-wide dialogue about one of the most pressing issues of our time, but also push us at WCMA to think more expansively about the role of museums, and about the nature of our artistic program," Coggins said.

Eleven Williams College students are in Detroit to work on the project. Six of them are on the Action Team, which is co-led by senior Alex Mendez, and graduate student Terence Washington. In addition to leading the action team, Washington is assistant curator of the entire project.

The other student group is participating in the Center for Learning in Action's break-out trip called "Ghana ThinkTank: Strengthening Cultural & Environmental Sustainability in Detroit."

Coggins said the students' adventure will include conducting oral history interviews with longtime residents of the neighborhood to learn about local cultural history and the ways in which they can help promote cultural sustainability in the face of gentrification.

"Students will also work with a series of community garden projects and a water catchment system to support the sustainable efforts in the community to make the space more ecologically sustainable," she said.

They will also work closely with artisans from Morocco on the installation of a Moroccan Riad between the buildings which will serve as a communal meeting space.

Montoya said the effort will hopefully lead to a more sustainable way to create long-lasting, mutually supportive communities that are more easily sustainable.

"If we give them something to hang on to, we can create more relationships and more opportunities for community," she said.


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