How The Heidelberg Project Is Transforming Lives Through Art

By Jessica Lyons

Artist Tyree Guyton started The Heidelberg Project 25 years ago when he took vacant neighborhood blocks and transformed them using his artwork. The project uses art programs, education programs and hands-on workshops to educate about art and community. Through these efforts, the organization hopes to improve the community and the lives of the people who live there.

The Heidelberg Project was recently selected as's organization of the month. We caught up with Sharon Luckerman, the project's Development Director, to talk more about how art can make a big difference. Can you tell me about The Heidelberg Project's mission and how you work to accomplish that mission?

Sharon Luckerman: The Heidelberg Project is a Detroit-based community organization designed to improve the lives of people and neighborhoods through art. Our mission is to inspire people to appreciate and use artistic expression to enrich their lives and to improve the social and economic health of their greater community. Our vision is the theory of change and the theory of change for The Heidelberg Project begins with the belief that all citizens from all cultures have the right to grow and flourish in their communities.

The Heidelberg Project believes that a community can redevelop and sustain itself from the inside out by embracing its diverse cultures and artistic attributes as the essential building blocks for fulfilling an economically viable way of life.

We're in one of the poorest communities in the country. And yet, because of the art, we're the third most visited cultural site in Detroit. Because of the visibility and because of so many people coming to this place, how do we translate that foot traffic into economic and community development? Why do you think art is an effective tool for improving lives and communities?

SL: I think it's because it's more about creativity and opening people's minds as opposed to thinking of something as high art. The Heidelberg Project was actually, when I've talked about it with Tyree, started as a healing project, a way to heal from some terrible things that happened in his life and some awful things that were happening to his community.

He saw a community he grew up in, a very successful, working-class community, begin to disintegrate. And although they thought the city would help, no one came to the rescue. And he, as an artist, said, 'You know, we've gotta stop waiting for a savior here. We have to take matters into our own hands.' So he looked for a solution as an artist. I think art offers one of those solutions - a creative way, a fresh way, of looking at how you take responsibility for your environment. Are many of the project participants already familiar with art? Or is it frequently their first exposure to art when they come to The Heidelberg Project?

SL: I think it's a real mix. I think there are definitely artists who come. I think there are people who want to become artists who come kind of to inspire them. I think what's so interesting to me, who's lived in Detroit for over 30 years, is that it's a gateway into part of Detroit that no one would otherwise come to. People know that there's devastated communities, there's all kinds of things going on, but they don't get to see the kind of spunk of one community that's been dealing with this for 25 years. In your experience, do you think when visitors go to The Heidelberg Project it's typically a very eye-opening experience?

SL: I know that there are people who come there and it's overwhelming. There are people that come there and it's exciting and it's something they've never seen before and they're very excited by it. I've been there obviously many times and there are times when I'm very excited and it's neat and there are times when I feel the pain of our urban situation. You know, I think it's alive and you're alive and depending on the day and where you're at and what you can see on that day and what you don't see forms your experience when you come down there. What would you like to see visitors take away from The Heidelberg Project?

SL: I would like people to open up their eyes or open up their hearts in a sense. I think Detroit is very stereotyped, as are a lot of cities. Communities, people are very stereotyped. I think The Heidelberg Project offers you something richer. You know, it's a black community, but it's a community in the United States. It's about democracy in this country. It's about art. It has so many pieces to it. I think that people should just be open to the variety of pieces, the community it's in, the art that it is, the people they may meet. What do you think are the biggest challenges that the project faces when it comes to accomplishing all of its goals?

SL: Although we've been around for 25 years, it's only the last couple of years that we've grown. So the challenges are how do we, for right now, create the infrastructure to maintain our mission, that our vision stays strong, that we stay committed to the community that we're in? And how do we make sure that our nonprofit can sustain itself, can build a structure so that we do the best job that we can? We're no longer a mom and pop operation; we have a half a million dollar business here. Can you tell me about the future goals of The Heidelberg Project?

SL: I think our dream is obviously being a catalyst for community change. We (Detroit) were built on a lot of creative, amazing ideas, whether it was building cars, the music industry; we've always been a city of new ideas. And I think we now have an opportunity for another amazing new idea in building the cities of the future without losing sight of the people.

This is the last piece of Black Bottom. Black Bottom was the only area in the city where African Americans were allowed to live after World War I. It also had a business section called Paradise Valley. Paradise Valley had the most successful African American business people in the country. And then, in the early '60s, a freeway was built through it purposely to get rid of the African Americans in the middle of the city. And that has to heal, that damage that completely damaged the communities. How do you heal from something like that? I think the whole country has to heal from racism. I think in some ways The Heidelberg Project is sort of ground zero in some way of that experience. And so, in many ways, our growth has to incorporate that kind of healing. Is there anything else that you'd like to share with our readers about The Heidelberg Project and its work?

SL: I just think as someone who's lived here for 30 years...I never learned so much, even though I lived right in the city, as I did coming down here and working here. I saw the amazing energy around the city, but I also saw how disconnected the city is at this point. It's lost so much population and has had to reduce newspapers and reporters and people who can tell the story. I see how valuable it is for people to reconnect and to reconnect with what's happening at The Heidelberg Project or wherever, it does mean rolling up your sleeves and becoming involved.

Art is also being used to show the Afghanistan occupation in a new light.

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