Paige Pfleger: Friday Night Live! at the DIA

By Paige Pfleger, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 12, 2014

Even though Friday Night Live! happens every Friday night at the DIA, Friday Nov. 7 was an especially special one — Detroit’s bankruptcy plan had just been approved by the courts, and the DIA was a star of the proceedings.

“The DIA stands at the center of the city as an invaluable beacon of culture,” Judge Steven Rhodes said during his ruling. “To sell the DIA art would be to forfeit the city’s future.”

That declaration was significant in many ways: it secured the DIA’s future as well as asserted that the DIA was a cultural epicenter for the city, a gem that needed to be preserved, according to Rhodes, “for the benefit of the people in the city and the state.”

And, after attending Friday Night Live!, it was blaringly obvious that Rhodes’ statement is true.

Friday Night Live! is a program that began at the DIA years ago as a way to encourage more interaction with museum-goers and the art at the DIA. The museum stays open late and boasts live music, drawing in the galleries, art-making workshops and more.

If this Friday was any indication, the program is wildly popular — the DIA was packed, with people sipping drinks in the renovated Kresge Court and filling all the seats in the Rivera courtyard to listen to the night’s musical guest, Huun Huur Tu, a Tuvan acoustic quartet.

Huun Huur Tu was interesting for a myriad of reasons — they draw from ancient Tuvan songs and using traditional instrumentation, they incorporate 20th century inspirations to make a funky, electronic sounding music that’s kind of reminiscent of the Blue Man Group, in a way.

The four men sat in front of Diego Rivera’s iconic mural of the Detroit auto industry, and played their traditional Tuvan music to an eclectic audience of Detroiters: there were families, couples on a date, children and elderly people. In one corner of the room, a baby girl swayed back and forth to the music, shoving raisins in her mouth and staring up at the ceiling covered in sheets of beaded crystal. It was impossible to ignore the conglomeration of cultures that were brought together under the DIA’s roof.

Downstairs in the African American gallery, the Drawing in the Gallery workshop was taking place. Housed in a different exhibit each week, Drawing in the Gallery supplies guests with drawing materials for free, and encourages them to take a seat at an easel and take more time to engage with a piece of art.

“Want to draw?” a lady sitting at a desk asks. “It’s free!” Her name is Catherine Peet, and she’s an artist that runs the Drawing in the Gallery workshop for the DIA. She has a shock of grey hair and a friendly smile.

“People come in and just observe the art, and pick out something that stimulates them or is interesting to them to draw, and we set it up for them,” Peet said, gesturing around the gallery at the people perched on easels, sketching different statues and pictures. “And they just do their thing. We just encourage people to enjoy the art objects that they see.”

Drawing in the Gallery usually brings in anywhere from 25 to 100 people who can drop in anytime from six until nine to draw. No previous experience is required to participate.

“We get a variety,” Peet explained. “Like Ricky over there, he’s been coming for years.”

She gestures at a man seated in front of a wooden sculpture on the other side of the gallery. He has headphones in, his hair is pulled back into a ponytail and wire-framed glasses are perched on his nose.

His name is Ricardo Garcia, and he’s been coming to the drop-in drawing at the DIA for more than six years now, “religiously,” he said, “every Friday.” He started working for the DIA after organizers noticed how dedicated he was to the program.

“It opens up seeing, it shows people how to see. That’s basically what the purpose of the program is,” Garcia said. “We are not here to instruct or to tell you what’s wrong or right. We are helping you see.”

The piece Garcia is working on is immaculate — he’s using a pencil to shade in the contours of the African statue in front of him, and every line looks meticulously thought out. That’s part of the beauty of drop-in drawing, Garcia said. It creates an entirely different interaction between museum-goers and the art itself.

“People actually learn to engage with the artwork in a different level than just going by it,” he said. “When you sit down and you look at it, you take into account how much time it took to be done, because if it takes you an hour to do your drawing, you say how much time would it take the artist to create that piece. You start bonding with the artist.”

Friday Night Live! offers a drop-in drawing class for kids, as well as an instructional workshop taught by a variety of different artists in different mediums.

In his book, “My Art, My Life,” Diego Rivera said, “As I rode back to Detroit, a vision of Henry Ford's industrial empire kept passing before my eyes. In my ears, I heard the wonderful symphony which came from his factories where metals were shaped into tools for men's service. It was a new music, waiting for the composer with genius enough to give it communicable form.”

This music that Rivera heard inspired the mural that is the backdrop for live music on Friday nights, and the creation that this music inspired can be seen on the easels of artists sitting in front of a Degas or a Michelangelo.

That’s the beauty of the DIA, and the beauty of these Friday nights: it’s proof that Detroit’s cultural epicenter will continue to thrive, and that the spirit of Detroit is very much alive.