With more than 120 years of history, the Detroit Institute of Arts has a lot to live up to. Which is why, when the museum took on a massive $158 million renovation project, it had to be done exactly right. The building’s infrastructure was seriously damaged in some areas, galleries needed expansion and the creative vision struggled to captivate the average visitor.
“We have been catering to our fellow specialists for over a hundred years and allowing the rest of the world to make their way the best they can, and we’ve reversed that,” DIA director Graham Beal said.
After nearly seven years of blanketed scaffolding and thematic installation experiments, the museum will open its doors to the public next Friday in a 32-hour-straight opening with free admission and special events.
The physical renovation of the building itself, executed by designer Michael Graves, appears somewhat inconsistent in its efforts to fuse the traditional museum aesthetic with more modern structures. But the gallery space is no longer the labyrinth it once was, and the addition of a “main drag” where art can also be displayed has eliminated a considerable amount of confusion in navigating the museum.
But the building is merely home to the artwork within and secondary to the DIA’s vision of how each gallery was restructured.
“Shorthand for what we’re doing is treating our great permanent collection as if it was a special collection,” Beal said. “And an exhibition, by its very nature, has to tell a story.”
When the project started, three teams of non-experts were commissioned to develop these stories, or “big ideas,” as the foundational concepts behind the permanent collection. Though only a small percentage of the original pool of big ideas has been implemented, the review process was invaluable to the final outcome and provided tangible insight into the museum experience.
Visitors may browse a gallery, even pausing occasionally, but very rarely do people actually stop and interact with the art on display. Beal admitted the DIA “wasn’t being very effective in getting the power of art across to the general visitor,” so he oversaw a variety of changes with this framework in mind.
Captions, for one, were changed drastically. “Out of necessity we have to use clear, straightforward, simple – but not simplistic – language. We have to avoid terminology and jargon,” Beal said. The word limit was knocked down to a pithy 150 words, rather than the usual three stocky paragraphs (which few people finished reading anyway).
Though it may seem like the curators are watering down the material, Beal prefers to regard it as “having smartened up.” After all, it’s far more difficult to write a concise, accessible message than relying on arcane, stylistic approaches to art history. It’s art for real people.
Various other elements – such as pull-out maps to see a changing Rome over time or panels with hints to trace the light in a Gentileschi painting – posit questions and suggestions to viewers for maximum engagement with the works. “The individual is then encouraged to go find out for themselves; they’re in control, it’s their experience,” Beal said.
The Italian collection has been converted into a Grand Tour installation to accomplish just that. In the same way an 18th-century intellectual or tourist would embark on a tour through Italy in place of what we would consider a collegiate education, visitors can explore the gallery as if they were traveling through Italy themselves, relating to an historical experience once considered essential to European students and art enthusiasts.
Other welcome changes to familiar galleries hinge on a connection between the historical and the contemporary. Traditional works of art are now flanked by photographs providing a geographical reference point for their place of origin as well as an in-depth focus on contemporary art-making processes. In the Native American gallery, a three-minute video shows how Pueblo pottery is still made using traditional techniques; masks from the mid-1900s hang alongside 19th-century masks to show a continuation of the art form.
In the decorative arts gallery, new “high-tech” elements demonstrate a similar concept but with a sleeker package. Where silver and china collections are on display, a tabletop becomes the focal point for a video projection streaming images of a full four-course meal. With the push of a button, costumed hands appear and begin smoothing the tablecloth, meticulously lining up the centerpiece and place settings. As each new course is served, the murmur of dinner conversation is audible in the background, and the viewer has the sensation of actually sitting down to a meal in 19th-century Europe. It’s almost impossible to pull away from the spectacle. Seemingly useless artifacts are on display in their original contexts, and royal life comes alive in a way that window displays can’t begin to evoke.
The DIA’s proactive approach also bled into its internal structure with the newly instated African-American art department, an endeavor Beal hoped would attract the local Detroit community and publicize the museum’s stance on multiculturalism. Still, there were reservations: Many contemporary African-American artists specifically don’t want to be labeled as African-American, and the deliberate segregation of artwork has been criticized for further emphasizing racial divides.
But Beal said special exhibits and occasional programs are simply not enough to prove that the museum is dedicated to the issue.
“It’s one very specific area of being serious about being inclusive, and being open to everyone,” Beal said. “It’s odd because you’re being exclusive in a way, but it’s an important message here.”
The majority of visitors hail from the metro Detroit area, mostly from Wayne and Oakland counties. The museum’s elitist atmosphere often failed to consider the inclusion of all visitors and had little to distinguish itself as an institution where everyone could come “for solace and to look at what’s good with humanity.”
The real challenge to recent improvements will likely be twofold: maintaining the momentum of excitement and local involvement and increased financial strain. Because Detroit doesn’t have the same appeal as a tourist city, the DIA and other cultural institutions need to make more of an effort to attract visitors beyond blockbuster exhibitions. But with almost $8 million in funding cuts by the state and very little from the city of Detroit, private donations are integral to continuing the current vision.
“Whether it’s the Tate Gallery in London or the Guggenheim in Bilbao, cultural institutions are great attractors and great stabilizers,” Beal said.
Though the museum will probably revert to business as usual in the upcoming months, there’s hope that the renovation will have a more lasting impact. While it may be the more cynical view, it’s unlikely the DIA will be anything more than an improved pocket of artistic advance unless the city begins to see more money distributed among its many assets.
The DIA’s new slogan, “Let yourself go,” might be a little over the top and perhaps unrealistically optimistic, but the updated museum is certainly a progressive turning point, one that will undoubtedly speak for itself come opening day.