By Thane Peterson I've been going to the Detroit Institute of Arts almost every year since the early '90s, when I began attending the city's annual auto show. The first few times I visited, it was pretty down at the heels. Even though DIA is the nation's fifth-largest museum and has a marvelous collection, it seemed ready to hang up a going-out-of-business sign. In 1991, the state cut funding to the museum, reducing its budget by 40%. Workers were laid off, and hours were cut back, which didn't seem to matter as there were hardly any visitors. There weren't many guards, either. I remember studying a Breugel and thinking, "I could tuck this thing under my coat and walk out with it."
But even under those sad circumstances, DIA was a wonderful museum. It has paintings by Breugel, van Gogh, and Cezanne that I visit every year. But I'm also happy to report the museum is making something of a comeback. It has an innovative new director, Graham W. J. Beal, 53. Some of its funding has been restored, and it's in the midst of a $300 million fund-raising effort.
VAN GOGH BLOCKBUSTER. The museum is getting considerable support from local business heavyweights. Richard Manoogian, CEO of Masco Corp.; A. Alfred Taubman, the real estate developer and major shareholder in Sotheby's auction house; and Mrs. Walter B. Ford II gave a combined $50 million to launch the fund-raising effort. DaimlerChrysler underwrote last year's eye-catching van Gogh exhibit, which traveled to Boston and Philadelphia. And the General Motors Foundation recently anted up $5 million, partly in support of a new African-American arts center.
The van Gogh show was the biggest event in DIA's history. It attracted
more than 300,000 visitors and spurred thousands of Detroiters to become museum
members for the first time. Beal is planning another potential blockbuster -- a
Degas show -- for 2002. There's even talk of keeping the museum open late
on weekends, which would have been unthinkable until a few years ago. While Detroit is still far from a garden spot, it doesn't have the scary, bombed-out look it had in the early '90s, so it's now considerably easier to lure suburbanites in the evening.
With the English-born Beal on board, the museum is probably going to get a lot more lively. His varied experience in the U.S. includes stints as a gallery director at Washington University in St. Louis, as a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, as chief curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and as director of the Jocelyn Art Museum in Omaha. Before taking the Detroit job in late 1999, he was artistic director for three years at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
STODGY NO MORE. Beal is one of a new generation of museum directors who have abandoned the traditional patriarchal view of the museum as a place to serve scholars and a small population of highly educated, usually affluent art lovers. He sees himself in the mold of such museum chiefs as Evan Maurer of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Peter Marzio of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, both of whom have sought to eradicate their institutions' stodgy images.
"We want to take a museum that is a somewhat confined institution and turn it inside out," Beal says. "We want to make it the public's museum. The art and the programs around the art will remain the core. But there are other avenues we can take to [attract people]. The idea is to get people feeling that the museum is theirs, feeling relaxed, and hopefully get them to come back at other times."
That philosophy includes such uncontroversial ideas as school-outreach programs and evening jazz concerts -- both of which DIA has already started offering. But it also can lead down paths that rattle traditionalists, causing them to accuse the museums of pandering to commercial interests and popular tastes rather than celebrating high art, which they consider the institution's proper role.
STAR WARS AND HIP-HOP. An example is Maurer's recent exhibit of Star Wars memorabilia. Another is the hip-hop music and clothing exhibit that closed on Dec. 31 organized by Arnold Lehman, the controversial director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. (Lehman also organized the show New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to shut down last year because it included a painting of the Madonna ornamented with dried elephant dung.)
One of Beal's goals is to appeal to Detroit's African-American, Hispanic, and Arab-American populations with "really significant core activities." To that end, he is establishing an African-American department. When asked if he would try to appeal to Detroit's African Americans with something akin to the hip-hop exhibit, he says, "I would hope that if we ever do anything comparable -- which is seen as so far out -- it would be seen as coming naturally out of the [African-American] department.... My concern about the African-American community -- and the Arab- and Caribbean-American communities -- would be that we do not deal with significant minority communities by saying, 'O.K., well, we did that exhibition for you.'"
He probably won't risk offending Detroiters with anything too controversial. When an artist refused to remove the "N-word" from a work shortly after Beal arrived, the new director canceled the artist's show.
I strongly recommend a visit to DIA if you happen to be in Detroit or are driving cross-country -- it's right off Interstate 94. The gigantic Diego Rivera murals in the entry hall alone are worth the visit. The Mexican artist painted the murals, a tribute to industrial workers, in 1932, right before he traveled to New York to create similar ones in Rockefeller Center. But the works in Detroit are the best examples of the artist's social-realist murals in the U.S. The New York murals were destroyed because the Rockefellers were offended by Rivera's Communist sympathies and refusal to remove a portrait of Lenin from the work.
TOP-NOTCH COLLECTIONS. However, this is a traditional museum with a huge variety of art to see. The Native-American and African collections are among the best in the U.S. The museum also owns some of the greatest Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in the world. Its van Goghs include an excellent self-portrait as well as the justly famous Portrait of the Postman Roulin. The 1886 portrait of Paul Cezanne's wife is among that artist's finest works. One of my favorite walls in DIA displays two portraits of women by Renoir and a similar painting by Degas.
I strolled around with David Penney, the museum's chief curator, as he pointed out some other works that are not to be missed. Among them, in no particular order, are The Wedding Dance, one of the greatest works by Pieter Breugel the Elder; The Jewish Cemetery, an eerie painting by Jacob van Ruisdael; a self-portrait by Whistler; and a wonderful Rembrandt, The Visitation. Among the recent additions to the collection are an elaborate wooden Palace Door done in 1925 by Olowe of Ise, a traditional Nigerian carver, and a still life by Rachel Ruysch, one of the few women artists to gain prominence in the 18th century.
That's a small taste of what DIA has to offer. The collection is comparable in breadth and quality to those of far better-known regional museums, such as the Chicago Art Institute. As a longtime visitor, I'm overjoyed to see DIA on the upswing. I, for one, hope Beal will stir up some controversy without falling into the trap of political correctness -- and that the museum can continue its turnaround even as the auto industry and the U.S. economy appear to be shifting into a down cycle. Peterson is a contributing editor at Business Week Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online