In 1996, artist Jeff Bourgeau was driving back to Detroit from his show in Chicago. With the surplus of time supplied by the four-hour trip, Bourgeau began questioning why he was driving so far: Why can’t a new artist survive in Michigan? What’s missing? The answer, he decided, is a contemporary art museum.
So, upon returning to Michigan, Bourgeau, in a one-dollar-a-month, walk-in-closet-sized room in Pontiac, founded the Museum of New Art (MONA). Since then, though the actual location has switched several times between Detroit and Pontiac, MONA has operated as an outlet for active, current and innovative artists and their supporters.
MONA’s present location, 7 N. Saginaw St. in Pontiac, was buzzing Nov. 20 as seven artists unveiled the museum’s new exhibit, “The Next Big Thing.” The show features Cranbrook MFA students and runs through Dec. 18. Since the students concentrate on different areas, it offers a range of sculpture, painting, installations, video and more. Mary Kim’s “Oblique Structure,” a collection of drawings, sculptures and models, is also opening tonight.
Adjacent to these shows, in a space filled with Bourgeau’s paintings and sculptures and some work done by other artists, Bourgeau, behind a table of wine bottles and trays of snacks, explains not only his pieces but also the need for a contemporary art museum. “Most cities have two museums,” he says, lamenting the (previously) solitary existence of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Bourgeau’s decision to split from traditional museum culture was further strengthened in 1999 when the DIA, impressed with MONA’s well-received show, invited MONA artists to set up shows in their space.
Though one of MONA’s aims is “to oppose corruption and the domination of money in the art world,” the nonprofit organization’s lack of extensive funds has hindered its permanence. Location is completely unpredictable: the owner of a low-cost building will allow the museum use of space, but only until someone who will pay more comes along, at which point MONA is left homeless. This system obviously interrupts the flow of the museum, but MONA Assistant Director Sean Lewis recognizes a sense of community and freedom that can’t be produced in more rigid, established institutions.
“Something like the DIA has a board of trustees, who make important decisions,” Lewis reasons. “Something like this doesn’t have as much financial support, but the artists and the community can get directly involved with what goes into the museum.”
More money, Bourgeau thinks, could bring MONA back to Detroit, where he ultimately wants the museum to be located. “Detroit is a certain cache of young people and artists,” he says. “I think the museum has to go back to Detroit, to the core.”