The Heidelberg Project is more than just an outdoor art exhibit in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood of Detroit, and Executive Director Jenenne Whitfield always has known that.
Thanks to a study published Oct. 3 and conducted by the Center for Creative Community Development, or C3D, Whitfield now has the numbers to show that the project is making a difference.
The economic impact study found that based on the nonprofit Heidelberg Project’s annual budget of $400,000 and an average 50,000 visitors per year, the annual economic impact in Wayne County is about $3.4 million. The exhibit also has led the creation of an estimated 40 jobs, according to the study. The local economic impact — in areas of Detroit around Heidelberg — is about $2.8 million.
“I feel validated,” Whitfield said. “These numbers could be just a start.”
The study was funded by a grant from New York City-based Leveraging Investments in Creativity and conducted by C3D, which operates from the campus of Williams College in Wil-liams-town, Mass.
Whitfield said she and others at the 25-year-old Heidelberg had eagerly applied for the study.
“We have for a very long time … known that the Heidelberg Project was so much more than an amazing artistic project. People were coming from so far away specifically to see the Heidelberg Project. We knew they had to be doing other things in Detroit,” Whitfield said.
Approximately 70 percent, or 35,000, of the estimated 50,000 annual visitors to Heidelberg are not from Wayne County, and they come from farther than just other parts of the state.
A graph on the C3D website shows the home locations of visitors who signed the Heidelberg guestbook. The map shows visitors from as far away as Maine and Florida. Heidelberg draws international visitors as well.
Stephen Sheppard, director of C3D, said the research center has done many similar studies. The Heidelberg study surprised him.
“We studied 35 organizations around the country, and there’s no organization we’ve studied with a budget this modest that is bringing in near this number of visitors,” Sheppard said. “They are punching way above their weight.”
Artist Tyree Guyton started Heidelberg in 1986. It consists of several houses, on Heidelberg Street between Gratiot Avenue and Mt. Elliott Street, that he covered in polka dots and discarded items — anything from auto parts to stuffed animals. The detritus extends well into the yards and nearby areas, including the trees, making for a full view for approaching visitors.
Not surprisingly, city officials for many years took exception to the scene. In recent years, the city has been more supportive of the project, but the study still brings a much-needed boost, Whitfield said.
“Detroit has historically been a city of originality,” she said. “I’d like to see those in a position of power realize that more.”
C3D has studied other art projects such as Dance Place in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in Detroit. Sheppard said the place of arts and culture in rebuilding a city should not be overstated, but not underestimated either.
The MOCAD study estimated that, based on its $1 million annual budget and a visitor count of 35,000 per year, the museum has an approximate $2.3 million regional economic impact. About 25 percent of visitors to MOCAD are non-local.
“The Detroit and wider Detroit region faces a wide array of challenges,” Sheppard said. “I don’t think it’s correct to say that art and cultural organizations and projects alone can completely turn around the economy of Detroit … but I think arts and culture projects like the HP are (part of that).”
The Heidelberg Project is in the design stage of building an arts center near the site of the project. The center would house the nonprofit’s administrative offices, currently a few miles away on Watson Street off Woodward Avenue.
Beth Diamond, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is working with student Nick Lavelle on the center’s design. She told DetroitMakeItHere.com earlier this year that the center, called the House That Makes Sense Center, would represent sustainable use of recycled materials.
“If there’s one thing Detroit doesn’t have a shortage of, it’s building materials,” Diamond said. “We’d be negligent if we shipped in materials from other places.”
Whitfield hopes the arts center will let Heidelberg staff observe more closely what goes on at the project site. She suspects the number of visitors cited in the study is modest and believes another study would be warranted once more accurate numbers can be collected.
The Heidelberg Project has received grants totaling more than $200,000 in the past two years, including $50,000 from LINC to support the new center and other grants from The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation and The Kresge Foundation. This year the Annenberg Foundation contributed $300,000 to support the center and general operations.
More information about the Heidelberg study and others by C3D can be found at c-3-d.org.
Michelle Munoz, Crain’s Detroit