Detroit museum uses 6-year renovation, expansion to rethink art

By David Runk
Detroit, Michigan (AP) 11-07

Through an entryway reminiscent of arches at the Doge’s Palace in Venice, a series of galleries at the newly renovated Detroit Institute of Arts tells the story of the 18th century Grand Tour of Italy.

The paintings, sculptures and furniture, culled from the museum’s vast collection, are similar to those that would have been seen by wealthy, young European men traveling to Venice, Florence, Naples and Rome to complete their education.

Some would have been bought to be hung on the wall of an estate to illustrate how cultured that man had become. Others are the equivalent of airport art, cheaper pieces bought by travelers on the run.

In the gallery on Naples, museum-goers can sit and write post cards reflecting on their own grand tour. Elsewhere in the museum, they’ll also have 21st century tools at their fingertips to help interpret what they’re viewing, including hand-held computers and interactive displays.

Instead of the more traditional museum model of grouping objects by time period or style, the Detroit Institute of Arts is using techniques honed in the presentation of temporary or traveling exhibits – the kind of shows that draw big crowds – to showcase its permanent collection.

It’s all part of the museum’s $158-million six-year overhaul. The public gets its first look inside the renovated museum starting Nov. 23, when it opens for 32 consecutive hours.

“The tendency with the permanent collection is to think of a theme and stuff the works into it,” Graham W.J. Beal, director of the DIA, said during a tour of the museum. “We actually started with the works of art.

“And so the stories come from them. And so the strength of the story is that it takes you back to the work of art, rather than using the work of art as an illustration.”

It’s a fresh way of looking at art that’s being debated by museum directors, curators and art experts.

“The field is still struggling with the fundamental question of how to make a work of art sing – how to help a visitor build their own relationship with a great work of art,” said James Christen Steward, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, which is undergoing its own renovation and expansion.

Other museums, such as the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the Tate Modern in London, have explored aspects of the ideas on display in Detroit, Steward said. But observers say no institution the size and scope of the DIA has attempted such a full rethinking of its permanent collection.

Bruce Altshuler, director of the graduate program in Museum Studies at New York University, said the changes at the DIA are part of a broader movement since the 1970s to make museums more accessible. The reworked DIA, he noted, still appears to remain grounded in time periods, not purely in themes.

“It’s not really getting away from history, but presenting history in a different way around narratives,” Altshuler said.

The DIA broke ground on the renovation in April 2001 as part of an effort to upgrade its galleries, and become more accessible and visitor friendly. It has been closed since the end of May for final construction and the reinstallation of about 5,500 objects.

Before the multimillion dollar project began, stone was falling off the museum’s facade and conditions in parts of the museum weren’t ideal for safeguarding the art, Beal said.

Changes include the gleaming Farnsworth Street Lobby entrance and new central corridor of galleries designed to make it easier to navigate the sprawling museum.

But Beal pushed the museum to do more than just improve the 1927 Beaux-Arts building and wings from the 1960s and 1970s.

Before the renovation, art seen as part of the Grand Tour galleries would have been displayed separately as Italian painting, sculpture and decorative arts, as well as under potentially more intimidating headings such as the Baroque period and neoclassicism.

Using the theme of travel, the museum staff hopes the Grand Tour will better engage visitors. Some other galleries organized around themes include Images of Spiritual Power, featuring Native American objects; Art and the Cycle of Life, displaying objects from African cultures; and the Dutch Golden Age, reflecting on faith and commerce in 17th-century Dutch society.

“It’s only radical because it’s to do with the permanent collection, that we’re not leaving it alone,” Beal said.

Steward said he has some doubts about the DIA’s approach, such as the shedding of the traditional language of art history. But he noted the museum is making a clear choice about what’s right for itself and visitors.

“It’s so wholehearted,” Steward said. “They haven’t elected to test their focus on the so-called ‘big idea’ with one area of the collection, but have committed the whole of the institution to this approach.”

Founded in 1885 and located in the city’s cultural center, the DIA has a collection of more than 60,000 works, including the first Vincent van Gogh painting to enter a U.S. museum. It displays American, European, modern and contemporary art, as well as significant African, Asian, Native American, Oceanic, Islamic and ancient collections.

The museum’s maze of hallways and galleries – the result of the previous expansions – has become a central “promenade,” with galleries to the left and right. Architect Michael Graves, whose firm is the renovation’s primary designer, said the simplified flow of the museum is “enormously satisfying.”

But he credited the reinstallation, which was led by the DIA’s staff, for truly transforming the museum.

“I am so struck by the way the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are represented here,” Graves said. “I don’t think that you will find, in America – let alone Europe – but in America, anything that comes close.”

More interactive displays also are incorporated throughout the galleries. The goal is to help visitors better connect with – and learn about – the art.

Handheld computers will be available, for example, to help visitors explore Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals. And in a gallery housing cases of the museum’s 18th century European serving pieces, a video projected onto a “virtual” dining table shows some of those objects being used.

“We specifically wanted to use technology to attract people to the works of art, maybe to works of art that they didn’t really pay much attention to before,” said Jennifer Czajkowski, head of interpretive education for the DIA. “But we also wanted to appeal to their sense of imagination.”

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