#rpDetroit Co-Curator Tiff Massey on access to the arts in Detroit


Tiff Massey is an interdisciplinary artist from Detroit, Michigan. Her work, inspired by African standards of economic vitality, includes both large-scale and wearable sculptures, music and performance. She uses contemporary observances of class and race through the lens of an African diaspora, combined with inspiration drawn from her experience in Detroit.

As co-curator for the track “Arts & Culture” at #rpDetroit, Tiff Massey is leading the culture programme together with Detroit-based cultural producer Lauren Rossi. In our interview, Tiff Massey discusses Detroit’s way-of-life and challenges regarding access to the arts in the city.  

What’s special about the Detroit way-of-life?
People. That’s what makes Detroit. Period. It’s the people. It’s the man screaming “I hope you have a good day!” across the 7 Mile to his friend who’s stopped at a red light. It’s the young man who’s helping his grandmother cross the street. And it’s the frustrated woman who’s cussing out a man saying “B*tch, you don’t know me!”. That sh*t makes me smile. 

How would you describe Detroit’s cultural scene and current artistic drive?
Growing up, it felt like that was a much larger cultural scene in Detroit. There were a lot more festivals and opportunities for people to engage with culture in the city. I remember going to art fairs in the museum district, in Greektown and in Hart Plaza. Those events are defunct. People are now creating their own initiatives, in Palmer Park, Belle Isle, Sidewalk Festival in Brightmore, Detroit Art Week. It’s becoming more consistent.

Everyone talks about how much space there is in Detroit, and that’s true, there’s a ton of space to create and to bring culture to the community. I really think that individuals who are interested in seeing more opportunities should reach out to those people who are already doing the work and see how they can contribute to or collaborate with what’s already being done, rather than attempting to create something new. 

Consider the Movement electronic festival, and how it used to be free and open, now tickets are probably $300. There’s another new festival starting this summer for comparison, that tried to charge white people more for admission than blacks. Because of pushback, they changed their plans to charge everyone the same amount. At the end of the day, they were trying to create an experience for their audience, for their culture. Based on the people they booked for that festival, 9 times out of 10, even if they’re black acts performing in a black city, the audience is white-dominated.

If Detroit was a majority-white city, it would never have been devalued, defunded, and it’s mad politics in play that have been going on for a long time. For the native Detroiters, everyday is a hustle. We’re hard workers. The drive has always been here. We want to see ourselves in all spaces, whether they’ve been around forever or are newly created. 

And for the new Detroiters, every day is an opportunity. There are a lot of opportunists here. Who’s controlling the narrative of what is happening in Detroit? Art is not new to Detroit, design is not new to Detroit. We invented cars, and we damn-near invented music. Why aren’t there systems in place to ensure longevity?

The main point is that we need more preservation of the culture, that’s what bringing everyone here in the first place. What’s lacking really is a collector-base. There are a lot of collectors around Detroit, but they’re not collecting in Detroit. They’re going to New York, LA and the fairs. I would like if the majority of my collectors were Detroit-based collectors.

What are challenges you've faced regarding access to arts & culture in Detroit?
Gatekeepers. I want to be transparent. I have accolades that some people only dream of, but even along with the accolades that I have there are structures and gatekeepers in place that are keeping me from getting to the next level. 

If you had unlimited resources, how would you want to increase access for creatives in Detroit?
I would build it. 

What are you hoping to see from the rpDetroit Call for Participation?
I want Detroit to stand up and show everyone exactly what we’re talmbout.