Festival illuminates the arts in Midtown
75,000 attend Dlectricity; estimated impact tops $1M
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Children at Dlectricity could explore Frontier Town, a kid-sized tent camp just off Woodward Avenue.
Photo: PHOTOS/DAVE LEWINSKI
When the sun went down and the lights went up in Midtown on Oct. 5-6 for Detroit's inaugural Dlectricity light festival, it was the culmination of three years of planning and a concerted effort to expand the city's lineup of arts and culture events.
The festival, which included 35 glowing art installations, attracted 75,000 people downtown and exceeded organizer expectations for attendance and economic impact. Extrapolating from averages on arts event spending, the impact of Dlectricity is likely to have exceeded $1 million.
Dlectricity was the brainchild of Mark Schwartz, chairman of Art Detroit Now, an organization dedicated to promoting metro Detroit's arts community. The concept is based on nuit blanche, or nighttime art, which is a popular medium in the international arts community -- similar events took place in New York City and Paris on the same dates.
"We wanted to do something that would put Detroit on the map from an international standpoint," he said. "The use of light is meaningful, the regeneration of Detroit or shedding light on Detroit."
Sue Mosey, president of Midtown Detroit Inc. and co-producer of the festival with Art Detroit Now, said events like Dlectricity and its other events, such as Noel Nights and Art X Detroit, put affluent crowds in the streets for short-term economic gain and boost the city's image for long-term gain.
"A lot of places stayed open late to take advantage of the crowds, and the business owners I've talked to said they doubled the amount of business over the weekend," Mosey said. "All of these events help us build the Midtown brand, which is heavily built around the arts."
Schwartz brought the developing idea to the well-connected Mosey last fall with hopes of launching an event.
The two groups worked together to raise funds, resulting in a $600,000 budget from philanthropic organizations, with the Kresge Foundation taking the lead.
Laura Trudeau, senior program development director for community development and Detroit programs for Kresge, said the nonprofit was interested in Dlectricity as a complementary program to its Art X Detroit event, a six-day April program highlighting the works of Kresge's arts fellowship program.
"Art X Detroit got a lot of attention, and from where we sit we want a cadence of programming with Art X Detroit and Dlectricity," she said. "This really helps build on the Creative Corridor and is helping convince a lot of creative businesses to move down the Woodward Corridor."
The crowd of 75,000 Friday and Saturday nights was well above the organizers' projected 50,000 goal, said Schwartz, who also served as chairman of the event.
Dlectricity featured video projections, 3D videos, lasers, light sculpture, interactive designs and performances, along with family-friendly activities, food trucks, concerts and block parties.
"The event surpassed my wildest expectations," Schwartz said. "I could not believe how many people were on Woodward Avenue, of all ages and colors, walking, talking, dancing and appreciating art."
The hordes of art spectators bled over into galleries and shops up and down Woodward Avenue.
George N'Namdi, founder of the G.R. N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art on East Forest Avenue, said roughly 4,500 people entered his gallery over the weekend. He kept it open until midnight Friday and 2 a.m. Sunday, concurrent with Dlectricity.
He said 2,500 people attended the gallery's grand opening, and getting 500 to attend a gallery event is a "great number."
As part of the event, N'Namdi featured a rear projection installation showing manipulated images of Woodward Avenue from 8 Mile Road to the riverfront.
"It lit up Detroit in a way that helps puts us on a world stage. Our community came out and supported us," N'Namdi said.
The Detroit Institute of Arts stayed open for the event Friday night, but the museum saw an influx of visitors, said Larry Baranski, director of public programs for the DIA and part of the curatorial selection committee of Dlectricity.
Baranski said the admissions counter couldn't keep up with the crowd, so employees began using a clicker to keep track of visitors pouring in the doors.
"We were stunned at the turnout," he said. "We seem to have hit upon something here."
The event likely had a strong financial impact to the community as well, said Maud Lyon, executive director of the Detroit-based Cultural Alliance of Southeast Michigan. The average cultural event attendee spends $17 on food, beverage or other items while downtown, according to a 2011 survey by nonprofit Americans for the Arts. With 75,000 attendees, the economic impact could be near $1.28 million for the weekend event.
Lyon said most of the area's retail shops stayed open to capitalize on the crowds.
"There was a real monetary value for businesses in Midtown and downtown, and the shop owners were clearly maximizing that opportunity," Lyon said. "While it was the arts community getting the attention, it was the entire area that was brought to life."
Dustin Walsh: (313) 446-6042, email@example.com. Twitter: @dustinpwalsh