What should an art museum be today? In earlier times, they started out as temples amassing troves of treasures, colossal cabinets of curiosities. With ever growing collections of culture, the museum’s mission expanded to one of preservation and eventually interpretation of that culture. Over the course of their evolution, these additional purposes accumulated like strata, over the core of the collection. The mission today has become strongly about educating a broader public. The museum and its collection are no longer that isolated temple, but an integral part of the community.
In its redesign, the Detroit Institute of Arts is out to further redefine the museum’s role in society as indicated in their updated mission statement, “To serve the public through the collection, conservation, exhibition and interpretation of art of a broad range of cultures and to expand understanding of these diverse visual forms of creative expression for the enjoyment and appreciation of the widest possible array of audiences.” It’s a challenging task to negotiate such terrain – preserving and building upon the collection, while making it accessible and truly educational. At times, these purposes, or rather their proponents, can be at odds with one another, involved in a push and pull over the shape of the museum.
After missing out on the grand re-opening festivities, I finally “let myself go” (and go again). The DIA holds an almost mythical place in my memory, as it does for so many of us. I fondly recall delightful visits there as a child, most often with my grandmother. We’d ride the bus down and spend the day taking in all that we could – different eras of art, perhaps a puppet show, and always the suits of armor – my favorite then (ok, maybe now too!) The grand place was magical, the experience opened my eyes wide and filled me with wonder. And that’s an important turn of phrase, “fill with wonder,” as in to amaze or awe, but also to question and instill curiosity. To fill with wonder then is the core mission of education – to create excitement in the student and the desire to learn more. I can’t then help but hold my experience at this hall of wonders as an important element of my education – and influential on who I am today.
And so, although I’d been eagerly anticipating the museum’s rebirth, I also approached it with a bit of trepidation. There’s a part of me that worried that some of its mystique and significance from childhood would be tarnished with all the changes. But in visiting, I found such notions were almost immediately dispelled, and a new sense of wonderment restored.
One of the biggest concerns I had had about the redesign was talk of a spine or “promenade,” and an easily traversed museum. I realize I’m in the minority, but one of my favorite things about the museum has always been its labyrinthine layout. Sounds crazy, right? I mean who wants to get lost in a place? Sure, it could be confusing, that’s true, but in getting lost one would discover the unexpected and in wandering, be free to make connections that would not have happened otherwise. This is something I find that most museums lack – you frequently end up boxed in, trapped within cul-de-sacs, having to backtrack to see something new, and follow the path someone else wants you to. I mean, the Guggenheim is a pretty cool structure to be sure, but there’s only one way to go through it. In successfully making the DIA more navigable, I’m quite pleased to find that you can still get lost, if you choose to. This new spine, much like an interstate slicing through a city (though far more attractively), definitely helps visitors speed from one end to the other. But it doesn’t prevent a quite nonlinear tour, prompting new discoveries with each visit. It’s as if, to paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, you cannot step into the same museum twice.
For those who’ve spent a lot of time in the museum in the past, the reconfiguring of existing spaces might be akin to a phantom limb sensation. That is, to offer an example from my parents’ home: there was for all of my growing up a little room in their house that, with the expansion of their kitchen and bathroom, was subsumed, leaving only a shallow closet. We still, instinctively, head to that room to find something that can’t be there anymore. Such is the experience of the experienced DIA visitor trying to place where you’re standing in relationship to what once was there – it can be almost a game of sorts, adding to the experience, though obviously a non-issue for those having spent little or no time here previously.
And then of course, there’s the artwork – the collection that everything’s built upon. It’s astounding just how much is on display. Sure, we hear about the immensity of the DIA’s collection – the fifth largest in the United States, but now you can really see a great extent of it, and just how strong a collection it is. Calling something “encyclopedic” always comes off as a bit of a dig, but it’s an accurate term, and a collection of that sort is vital. In addition to representative works from all the significant players in art history that one might expect, the museum also gives due to Detroit’s rich artistic heritage, including Cass Corridor artists, and others like Jim Pallas’s delightfully interactive “self-portrait,” Charles McGee’s epic “Noah’s Ark: Genesis,” and many more.
As the museum incorporates a regional component, it simultaneously is reaching outward, not just to the works of ancient Egyptians and the Greeks as we’ve come to expect, but extensive collections of African, Native American cultures, and more. By devoting a gallery to a rotating exhibition of contemporary craft arts – in glass and wood, often kept separate from the fine arts, the museum reaches across barriers not only of geography, but within the art world itself as well. All in all, the museum offers a truly comprehensive global cultural experience that is far more than a single visit (or article) can hope to cover.
On the subject of attendance, I hear peeps of grumbling about the new mandatory admission fee, but let’s think about this calmly. Agreed, it would be nice if we lived in a society that valued such cultural institutions so as to fully support them for the good of the public. But until that shift in values comes, the price is still less than a movie, and significantly less than comparable institutions. And there’s membership, which yes, some will say that they won’t go enough times a year to justify. Perhaps there’s some truth to this for the individual, and perhaps, just supporting the organization isn’t enough on its own. However, there’s another way to look at this. It’s understandable that if you pay every time you go to a museum, you want to dash around and see everything in order to feel like you got your money’s worth. But as we observed before, there’s far too much to ever take in in one trip. If you are a member though, you can visit without thinking about the price, over and over again. And that’s really how a museum like this should be visited – on a regular basis. We can come in for a quiet moment, a pause for beauty, a bit of joy, taking in only one room, or maybe only one single work at a time. In doing so, the museum becomes something we live with, and definitely something we can’t live without.
With so much to see, there is to be sure, some cramping. In one particular instance a massive sculpture of interlocking wooden beams by Mark di Suvero really prevents standing back more than a few feet from Helen Frankenthaler’s painting “The Bay” (which perhaps serves to protect it from future gum incidents.) In other cases the work is given great space – their Anselm Kiefer is viewable from a good distance in a room that seems as if it were built for it. In those more snug areas, it feels a bit like how the work would look if hung in one’s own home. Not with a massive expanse of white wall space around it, but right up next to that other piece, or the couch. It’s never salon-style (as during the construction period), but it’s a closeness that acts in a way to make it feel more accessible, more within our figurative reach. On that subject of living with the art, a major component of the redesign has involved placing the works in a living context. Throughout the galleries and the spine, the decorative arts are exhibited alongside the paintings and other objects of the time. This works to bring greater attention to the decorative arts and better understanding of the art works by offering greater insight into the world the work was created in.
One of the defining aspects of the new layout is storytelling – about the art and the people that created them. And I don’t mean the gossipy, tawdry bits, but that of the conditions within the cultures that spawned them, and of the ideas and issues that people wrestled with. It’s an attempt to open eyes to a new view of what art is and what art means, and perhaps set us off on our own searches. There’s been some hubbub about the labels, but while I can’t claim to have seen all of them, I found them to be a help. That is, they don’t tell one everything about the work of art, but they do offer an introduction, a little hook to get a grip on what’s going on with the work or works. It’s enough to get one to look and just maybe, really look – which is why we’ve come to a building with art works in the first place. If the viewer wants to know more, in this information rich age, at the touch of a keyboard we can read up on any of these works that we experienced – in person – in the museum. In one example, I appreciate that the label linking Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman doesn’t use the word abstract expressionism, for it’s a label Rothko resisted as well, but we do get a sense of what they were up to with color. If anything, labels fall short when they offer too much and act as the authoritative last word. The label, and the museum, can act as gateways to our own explorations.
In telling stories there must also be some story throughout, an organizing tool – categories. So what then of the new African-American section, does separating artists along the lines of race help raise awareness or perpetuate a kind of segregation? What these galleries do is tell stories of a people’s struggle, of those who struggled, of perseverance and works that address race. It’s a story of building an identity in the face of adversity – and a story that those facing similar struggles can look to, can identify with, and find strength in, and a story that can help build understanding between people. It’s a necessary story to tell – it’s a space to pause and reflect, but beyond these devoted rooms, the works of African-American artists are integrated throughout the rest of the works in the museum, and such separateness disappears.
The story of the museum’s reopening is often tied to Detroit’s own quest for rebirth. My initial thought was that this is too much to ask of the museum. But in visiting, my view has changed somewhat. Yes, it’s still too much to expect a museum to transform a city, but it can have a significant effect, and the increased presence of African-American artists is a strong step. The huge upswing in attendance means a lot of folks returning to the city that haven’t in too long, and even after the mammoth success of the opening festivities, it’s continuing. Both times I went, weeks and over a month since the opening, the museum was packed. They were excited, they were pointing out things to their friends. And they were talking about Detroit. A lot of people are becoming aware of what else is happening in the city, and they are enthusiastic about it. There’s a lot of hope in this crowd. Perhaps most importantly, what the museum can do comes back to the stories it tells and the education it offers. The lack of arts education in the city (and state for that matter) is indisputably, perhaps criminally, poor. Our children need to see possibilities, they need stories, they need to have their imaginations stimulated and their minds challenged. This is a place where they can discover heroes to emulate, and perhaps eventually surpass. It’s a diet we need to make our future rich.
As to whether the cost was worth all that they got? Absolutely. Construction costs what it costs – and yes, it’s always too much. This nation spends in one single day in another country almost exactly what was spent on all the years this reconstruction project took. From that perspective, funding an educational, cultural institution is a drop in the bucket and something we desperately need. Could it be bigger? I don’t know. What it most definitely shows is a commitment to education, to bringing up a generation who appreciate art and see its value for our society.
One more question that comes up a lot, concerns how well does the new DIA serve Detroit’s arts community? I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a more ardent supporter of the art community here than me. However, I don’t see the Met or MOMA reserving a gallery for New York artists. I know of the Ongoing Michigan Artists Program (OMAP) that was held at the DIA some years ago. It was certainly important, and we do need more such things. Yet sometime along the way, in a culture that valued art and culture less, monies shrank, and the institution made a choice to use what they had remaining to focus on their collection and on education. A return to OMAP would be great, no doubt, but maybe it’s not the DIA’s function. There are non-profits and other galleries that can serve such a purpose in town. And here, perhaps the DIA could do more. Distribute info, a “like what you see here, why not check out these places” sort of thing. They could work to develop a more symbiotic relationship with the art community. It’s simple stuff and it feels good. Though they may not have a gallery devoted to contemporary local artists, they are reaching out in making artists a significant part of their educational programming. Some of this comes in the form of day long public lecture/demonstrations. On the day I went, artist Andy Malone was showing his mechanical artworks and explaining his ideas and methods to visitors. (www.andymalone.com)It was a great opportunity for kids and adults to see what an artist looks like, and interact in a human way, and for the artist to have his work seen by a huge audience in a grand space.
There’s so much more I’d like to mention here, and I realize there’s so much more I’d like to see, and see again. One thing that is essential to mention is the wise decision to transform a series of smaller rooms just off the Rivera Court into a special exhibition space. It’s not only an excellent gallery showcase, but it gives greater exposure to these contemporary exhibits and allows time periods to collide. The first show in this space features the sprawling, gesturally and symbolically layered works of Ethiopian-born, Michigan-raised, New York-based artist Julie Mehretu. These offer great vistas at a distance, and much to dive into and explore up close. It’s great to have them near such a staple of the museum as the Rivera murals, allowing visitors to see how artists address similar issues but with the ever changing visual language that defines their time.
Overall, I’m thrilled. I want to go again and see what I haven’t seen, and see what I have seen from a different direction. I think that both the collection and the mission of education are served well. Those two purposes can exist side by side. They’ve done a strong job of educating and making this a live, real place, as I think the response from people reflects. It’s a great asset to our community and I’m glad to welcome it back. What should a museum be? To return to that idea of wonder, the museum today can be more than a hall of wonders, but perhaps a gateway to wonder. It can be a place to amaze us, set our curiosity in motion, and send us on our own path of discovery. – Nick Sousanis
Photo Credits: DIA photos are by Eric Wheeler, DIA, and Nick Sousanis. Julie Mehretu image copyright 2007 Julie Mehretu, photo by Erma Estwick.
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