When you walk through the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, a lot of things may catch your eye. Perhaps it’s the flock of sharply-dressed men, unwavering and determined, barreling forward to an unknown destination. Or maybe it is the brazen coloring that targets your eye like a harsh ray of sunlight – orange paneling, yellow bricks and blue windows eerily mirroring not the colors of Michigan but the electric uniforms of Stephen Ross’s Miami Dolphins. And maybe, just maybe, it’s the bizarre interior design of the school — hanging cyndrilic lights and zig-zagging staircases to nowhere that are as if someone had a fourth grader read Kurt Vonnegut and then draw what it made them feel.
I admit I am a bit of a hypocrite for poking fun at the atmosphere of Ross; I study there more than anywhere else on campus (though in large part to the fact there is a Starbucks, a cafè and it is a five-minute walk from my apartment). And for me, everytime I enter the extensive building there is one thing that draws my attention more than anything else listed above: the art. Yes, believe it or not, Ross is full of art. Two-hundred and fifty pieces of it to be exact. It is hard to notice the collection, especially after a seven-hour bender in the Winter Garden that leaves your eyes feeling like they got the “A Clockwork Orange” treatment. But it’s there, in all of its beauty, irony and oftentimes weirdness, art permeates Ross from floor to ceiling.
I will begin with the horses. You have to know the ones — beasts of welded steel protecting the entrance to Robertson Auditorium, a room named after the very man who gifted these impressive brutes. The horses are a duo, one is titled “Forgetting the Other” and the other “With the Current.” I love these horses, I really do. Not only are they the result of extreme horse-girl syndrome (Deborah Butterfield, the artist, said “I knew when I saw my first horse that it was the most important being on earth”), but they’re really fucking cool. Giant horses made of steel? How hardcore is that? I like to think they come alive at night à la “Night at the Museum” and gallop freely through the empty halls until sunlight returns them to their permanent home.
Journey past the magnificent beasts to the water fountain next to the Starbucks and you will be greeted by a series of sketches and drawings by California artist Chris Johanson. Entitled “Perceptions,” the pictures depict humans, ants, bottles and other objects accompanied by phrases like “PLEASE STOP YOUR HORRIBLE WAYS EARTH PEOPLE” and “IT IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW, ACT NOW.” The irony in these pictures being hung in a business school at the University of Michigan comes flowing in heavily from every direction. Johanson wanted to make the sketches look like kids drew them because, as he said, “I hated school, and I hated education.” Johanson’s work is also seen as a critique on advertising and capitalism — need I say more?
As we walk out of Ross and into the Blau building, may I turn your attention to the man who made this all possible. A portrait of Stephen M. Ross hangs not from every rafter of the ceiling and above every doorway as you may expect, but rather in a humble corner in the lobby of the building. I have witnessed many a misidentification of Mr. Ross, from a poor, confused boy commenting that he didn’t think Bill Gates looked like that to a young girl proclaiming “Grandpa!” as she pointed at the image (though honestly, that may have been his actual granddaughter). Yet his persona should not be mistaken. Ross stands poised in front of a window bearing the same orange and blue that pervades his namesake school. He looks presidential, all the way down to the small American flag cufflink exposed on his left wrist. And in fact, the image was done by American artist Everett Raymond Kinstler, the same man who did the official presidential portraits of Ronald Reagan and Michigan alum Gerald Ford. Rumor has it, if you stand in front of the painting and say Ross three times outloud, J.P. Morgan will contact you about a junior year internship within the hour.
Walking through Blau, the poetic younger sister of mighty Ross, your eyes will be directed towards frame after frame of abstract modern art. My personal favorite hangs from the left as you walk out of the building, a geometric little piece by American artist Sol LeWitt. The piece is entitled “Irregular, Angular Brush Strokes” and is composed of colorful — you guessed it — irregular, angular brush strokes. Much like a business education, this art is straight to the point. When I first looked at and subsequently tried to interpret this art, I thought the lines were abstract take on stick figures, welding together people of all colors to speak towards inclusion and diversity. Apparently, the true meaning is highlighting the unexpected aspects of our mental process. Either way, they’re pretty cool lines.
As you leave the building, what do you feel? Do you feel enlightened? Inspired? Indifferent? Annoyed by this treatise? I could write 900 more words about the art in Ross. I want to know who chose it, where it came from, why they chose it, how much it cost. It’s like a friend’s annoying habit, once you notice it you can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve highlighted a few pieces of art, but there are still over 200 for you to seek out yourself. If nothing else, I hope you feel encouraged to look around while you’re walking through life instead of straight forward. You may be surprised by what you see.