Students explore artists' roles in remaking cities, with a focus on Detroit

Written by
Michael Hotchkiss, Office of Communications

Imagine artists with a city as their canvas, their stage.

Princeton undergraduates in the course "The Arts of Urban Transition" have spent the past semester using texts and methods from history, theater and dance to examine artists and works of art as agents of change in New York City and Detroit.

"We're examining what it meant for industry to leave, what it meant for the economy, the built environment, the populations," said Aaron Shkuda, one of the course's instructors and the project manager of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities. "We're considering why New York and Detroit have had such divergent histories since deindustrialization, how artists have shaped the process of development, and how they have responded to some of the contradictions of the postindustrial city."

Among the topics explored in the class: gentrification, relationships among artists, changing urban economies and the impact of urban arts initiatives.

Along with Shkuda, a historian whose research focuses on New York's SoHo neighborhood, the course is taught by Judith Hamera, a professor of dance in the Lewis Center for the Arts, and Aaron Landsman, a Princeton Arts Fellow in the Lewis Center. The course is supported by the Princeton-Mellon Initiative, a three-year interdisciplinary program that combines the efforts of a diverse group of faculty, programs and schools to develop a more dynamic and nuanced understanding of urban issues.

The centerpiece of the course was a four-day trip over fall break to Detroit that took the students and their instructors into the streets of the city, its museums, and the studios and homes of artists. They met with artists, activists, longtime residents and others working to improve the city.

Based on their readings, the trip to Detroit and trips to New York and Philadelphia, students created walking tours of urban environments, grant proposals for an artistic intervention addressing the politics, cultural history or future of Detroit, and collaborative ethnographic performances.

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