For all of us with distant memories of Mitch’s before it closed down two years ago, we also mourn the eyesore that still looms on the corner of South University and South Forest avenues. While the oft-missed bar is moving across the street (finally, but probably not until I’m gone), its previous boarded-up second-story space remains seemingly unoccupied and abandoned.

Jessica Boullion
Jessica Boullion

That is, until June. That’s when the University of Michigan Museum of Art will move in, at least temporarily.

The museum’s permanent space, Alumni Memorial Hall, which rests prominently next to Angell Hall and Tappan Hall, will undergo a massive two-year expansion – so massive that the museum will close its doors to the public for construction.

Meanwhile, UMMA and its constituents will scatter all over campus. Its administration in the Rackham Building on East Washington Street, its permanent collection in storage in various secret (yes, secret) locations and finally, its featured exhibitions on display across the street from Village Corner and New York Pizza Depot.

The space might seem like an odd fit for a museum, and it’s certainly a departure from Alumni Hall. The old building’s 15-foot ceilings, Beaux Arts-style architecture and open-air feel make an adequate backdrop for larger traditional pieces – such as the University’s Monet acquisition – and is as versatile as it is grand. On the other hand, and on the other side of campus, the museum’s temporary space is best described as snug – cozy enough that UMMA will only display one special exhibit at a time and none of its permanent works. In contrast, the museum currently has four special exhibits on display, in addition to a portion of its own collection.

The smaller space also requires a different approach to the art of art display. UMMA officials have decided not to fight the “urban” atmosphere of the former bar – brick walls, air ducts and metal ceiling supports will be left exposed. The look, according to UMMA director James Steward, is reminiscent of an “industrial warehouse.”

But not any ol’ painting, mural or sculpture will work in this temporary space. To match its modern settings, UMMA has planned a series of exhibitions all linked to perhaps the most contemporary of all media: photography.

The effort can be described as anything from obvious to genius, but I also can’t shake how perfect it all is. The space itself, on a practical level, is almost too good to be true – above-ground, only slightly off-campus, near parking and equipped with a loading dock.

And by exploiting the limitations of its new home, the museum can now experiment with innovative ways of displaying progressive art. Smaller in scale and less susceptible to unreliable climate control, photographs and moving images will complement the relatively claustrophobic site. It will also help usher in the next era for UMMA – one that will officially begin when its shiny new extension opens in 2008.

In the meantime, standing in the clearly under-construction temporary space, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of excitement. Steward talked about the newfound ability “to test out the modern aspects of the new building” and create a more inviting art scene.

Although its huge windows are boarded up and the drywall was still stacked in piles on the floor, I could see exactly what he meant. The room clearly has the potential to attract average students walking to and from class – something the intimidating Alumni Hall has never been especially effective at doing. The museum will even extend its hours way past dusk – following the example of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has established itself as a viable and hip option for couples on dates. A little Pizza House, bubble tea, then a peek at the Iranian photography exhibit? The possibilities are endless.

Although the space is only contracted to UMMA for two years (with the option for extension), Steward didn’t write off the prospect that – if the timing, support and money all fall into place – this temporary location could be a permanent satellite gallery. Maybe couples in the class of 2015 will be taking their sweethearts to the museum instead of Palio for Valentine’s Day. Not that I would know anything about that.

For students who are here right now, these decisions are best left for speculation until after the space’s opening – for all I know, the whole thing could be a horrible failure (God forbid). But luckily for those of us who care, UMMA took a risk and didn’t completely shut its doors – it just moved them for the interim.

So here’s a toast – perhaps with Mitch’s beer – to the grand experiment.

– Go loves Bubble Island more than life itself. Ask her out on a date at aligo@umich.edu.

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