Ryan Myers-Johnson founded Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts to showcase alternative arts

When Ryan Myers-Johnson left Detroit after graduating from the Detroit School of Arts in 1999, she was already planning her return.
At first she didn’t go far — just down the interstate about 45 miles to Ann Arbor, where she studied dance at the University of Michigan — but her talent and ambition eventually led her to Duke University, where she participated in the American Dance Festival, followed by extended stays in New York City and Japan.
Myers-Johnson lived in Brooklyn (in Clinton Hill, Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant) and worked for Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule film company. She was inspired by the creativity that she says was part of everyday life in New York, but soon began to think about how to transfer some of that street energy closer to where she grew up in the Cody-Rouge and Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhoods.
“Being back home in Detroit is very intentional,” says Myers-Johnson, 33, sitting at a table at Motor City Java & Tea House in Old Redford. The cafe is next door to Artist Village, a centerpiece for redevelopment in the historic district at the intersection of Lahser and Grand River, and for the sprawling Brightmoor neighborhood to the south.
Since she’s been back, Myers-Johnson’s choreography has been presented at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Cranbrook Institute, the University of Michigan, Concert of Colors, and the African World Festival. She has also served as choreographer in residence and dance education director at the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center and has had a leadership role at the Heritage Works Dance Ensemble.
“When I was in New York I felt I could be a muse for other people, and considered myself an instrument and a dancer,” she says. “But Detroit was always my natural environment. This is where I wanted to apply what I learned and become an entrepreneur.”
Her time away from home stretched from 2004, when she graduated from U-M, to 2010, when she returned in time to take part in avant-garde artist Matthew Barney’s production River of Fundament, a six-hour cinematic odyssey filmed in exclusive but grimy Detroit industrial locations. The site-specific series of performances on the set of the film made an impact on Myers-Johnson.
“I thought the pieces were really good but the audience that would see them was limited,” she says. “I wanted to do something similar but make it more democratic and accessible.”  
Myers-Johnson set out to make that happen in 2012 when Ryan founded Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts, an annual platform that allowed emerging experimental and alternative artists in Detroit to showcase their work — in full view of the public.
“I wanted to change the idea of site-specific performance art from something done in exclusive spaces for a select audience to something people can happen upon on the street,” she says.
For the 2014 version of the Sidewalk Festival, Myers-Johnson plans an “overload of activity,” producing what she calls “an artistically immersive environment” on the streets, sidewalks and alleys; and in storefronts, courtyards, performance spaces at Artist Village and urban gardens in the neighborhood north of Grand River along Lahser and extending to nearby Orchard and Greydale streets. Partners for the festival include the Brightmoor Alliance and Neighbors Building Brightmoor
Some of the featured artists and installations at this year’s festival include performances by Passalacqua, the Detroit Party Marching Band, Tunde Olaniran, Underground Resistance presenting D3, Mosaic Youth Theater, Shakespeare in Detroit, an interactive cardboard art installation, ping pong art, a 30-foot fiber art tunnel that people can walk through, and guest artists from Chicago and New York.
The festival’s mission is to promote placemaking and creative use of space “by transforming public, unique and underused property into nontraditional performance venues.” The event has featured the work of over 40 performing arts groups in Brightmoor and Old Redford, and Myers-Johnson has curated pop-up performances for the Cinetopia International Film Festival, Eastern Market and Jefferson East Inc. The festival is a finalist for a Knight Arts Challenge Grant, with winners to be announced this fall.
“The vision for the Sidewalk Festival is to do this in neighborhoods all over Detroit,” Myers-Johnson says. “We want to push boundaries and build creative energy throughout the city.”
The Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts is Aug. 2, 3-9 p.m. The Sidewalk team will also be participating in the Performance Art and Busker Festival at Eastern Market on Sept. 7.

Photo by Doug Coombe.

This story originally appeared in Urban Innovation Exchange here