At Detroit’s Sidewalk Festival, art springs out ...

At Detroit’s Sidewalk Festival, art springs out of vacant lots and parks

“The theater, museums, galleries, there’s a code of conduct that people often feel like they have to abide by. There's unwritten rules about who has access to those types of places.”

A performance at the 2018 Sidewalk Festival in Detroit. Credit: Trilogy Beats

Growing up, Ryan Myers-Johnson took the Detroit city bus from her home on the northwest side to get to school downtown, rides she remembers filling her with amazement as she looked out at the city’s architecture and landscape. Years later, she credits that scenery as one of the inspirations for her decision to pursue the arts as a career, earning her bachelor of arts in dance and film from University of Michigan and working as a choreographer. 

In the last decade, however, she’s been focused on bringing art out of the establishment and into Detroiters’ own neighborhoods. 

Ryan Myers-Johnson. Credit: Kate Gowman

“The theater, museums, galleries, there’s a code of conduct that people often feel like they have to abide by. There’s unwritten rules about who has access to those types of places,” she said. Instead, she’s looked “for ways to just remove all of that and just give people access to art that’s relevant to them, and inspires them.”

Myers-Johnson founded Sidewalk Detroit as a nonprofit in 2012; nine years later, its annual festival has grown to bring in more artists, more communities, more programming and work that continues throughout the year. This year’s Sidewalk Festival — called the Healing Revival Party — began last weekend and hosts original programming every Saturday through Aug. 14, featuring more from 30 performers and artists, including House of Jit, Phil Simpson, Cherise Morris, Thornetta Davis, Ajara Alghali, Levon Kafafian and Paulette Brockington. 

The festival brings together public art, public engagement and green infrastructure. 

“Our overall vision is to look at arts and culture as a means to create a more beautiful self-actualized existence [in] public space,” Myers-Johnson said, adding that they aim to cultivate more equitable and joyful public spaces during and beyond the festival.

Performers at the 2018 Sidewalk Festival. Credit: Trilogy Beats

Making a stage out of a parking lot 

In its early years, the Sidewalk Festival took place at Grand River and Lahser, and now springs up at sites across the city — events for this year’s fest include murals, music and theater at the site of a future greenway in Chadsey-Condon; a night market in the Joy-Southfield area; and sound bubbles and dance at the Manistique Creative Empowerment Garden and Treehouse in Jefferson Chalmers. 

Before each festival, Sidewalk Detroit puts out open calls for artists and contributors. The team also makes sure to reach out to community groups before setting up shop in their neighborhood. 

“We usually have a pretty overwhelming response of positivity and support in regards to bringing artists to some of the spaces and in our neighborhoods that haven’t seen as much investment and love as residents deserve,” Myers-Johnson said.

Artists are commissioned to provide work at non-traditional sites, including allies, sidewalks, storefronts and community gardens. 

Planning a performance at a vacant lot can be a challenge for artists used to working in a gallery or venue where they have everything they need for support. With Sidewalk Detroit, artists are not only given the duty of constructing art but creating the atmosphere for individuals in the community to feel empowered. They look for work that “creates a space of power and creativity,” Myers-Johnson said. 

Performers at the 2018 Sidewalk Festival. Credit: Trilogy Beats

Weathering the pandemic and year-round activation

When Myers-Johnson and her team aren’t working on the festival, they’ve turned their attention to Eliza Howell Park in the Brightmoor community. According to Myers-Johnson, the area’s lack of investment pushed her and the team to start hosting regular activities in the park, like yoga classes, jazz nights and harvest festivals. 

Sidewalk Detroit’s focus on placemaking has also naturally evolved into taking a role in grassroots neighborhood development. 

“We pretty much have community meetings around different developments every week,” Myers-Johnson said. “If we’re working on a park project, greenway project or public art plan, that just involves working together with those residents to design the new development.” 

During the pandemic, Sidewalk Detroit limited in-person events but moved programming online, commissioning pieces for a virtual artist residency and hosting online health, yoga and African dance classes.

“Instead of doing the festival, we did a neighborhood concert series,” Myers-Johnson said. “We brought artists directly to neighborhoods, we didn’t advertise it, we just went door-to-door working with residents to spread the word that there would be a performance on their block” that they could attend from their porches.

Though Myers-Johnson said she was happy to be able to host larger public events again after the struggles of finding funding and collaborating during the pandemic, those block concerts were just as aligned with their mission of wanting residents to fully get a chance to come out and enjoy the experience. 

“I think success is just seeing people create beautiful memories, joyful experiences, and seeing the community come together. It’s also about helping an artist actualize their vision,” Myers-Johnson said.

Find the schedule of events on the Sidewalk Festival site