The extent of artwork at the corner of State Street and South University Avenue over the past three years has been limited to the large orange Orion sculpture by Mark di Suvero that was installed this fall. While it certainly was an indication of things to come, the sculpture did little to incite conversation about art and even less to engage audiences beyond the initial question, “What is that thing?”
The wait has been worth it, though. Now, over 18,000 other artworks in the newly refurbished University of Michigan Museum of Art join the lone sculpture on State Street.
At the student opening last Tuesday, March 24, the line to get into the museum wrapped around the block, reaching to East University Avenue. Over 15,000 people attended the 24-hour opening on Saturday, and nearly 24,000 had attended by the end of the opening weekend. Within the museum, the collection sparked a long-awaited dialogue that has been missing on campus for the entirety of many students’ college careers.
Though students may have come for the free food or the Zingerman’s gift certificates, they ended up staying to talk about the artwork with their friends, ask questions about its origins and postulate their own philosophies behind art pieces — and these were not just typical museum-goers, but engineers, mathematicians and people from all areas of study.
“We didn’t want to be a museum for just artists and art historians,” UMMA Museum Director James Steward said. “Before, the museum was an adjunct to their studies — yet the vast majority of students are not studying that. We wanted it to be a hangout space, a place you can go to have other types of experiences.”
The events at the 24-hour opening were a glimpse into what the museum space has to offer. During the opening period, a trio of students performed a skit about Picasso, students danced through the museum in handmade costumes and comedy and poetry events constantly circulated throughout the auditorium.
Gone are the days when a museum could remain relevant simply by hanging up a few masterpieces. UMMA works at providing a dynamic space for not only paintings and sculptures, but all types of art. With future plans to make partnerships with the Zell Writers Series, the Screen Arts & Cultures program and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, UMMA is capitalizing on the idea of “a meeting place for the arts.”
“We’re trying to express that one type or one form of art isn’t that much greater than the others and that we can try to make some connective tissue between these different types,” Steward said.
Ania Musial, an LSA senior who attended the 24-hour opening, reminisced about how the museum has changed since she last visited during her freshman year.
“At first I was upset that one day it was gone, but they redeemed themselves with the new museum,” Musial said, conversing with a friend about how their previous experience with the museum had been limited to seeing 15 pop-art pieces and then leaving. The two emphasized that the museum is now an immersive experience.
The UMMA experience is tailored specifically to fit University students’ needs. Whether it be the free WiFi and the comfy chairs that lure students into the museum after class or the extended hours and free admission that make it more convenient to freely stroll through the exhibits, once inside, students will find deeper and more unexpected reasons for enjoying UMMA.
“Art is a fundamental way of learning about the world,” UMMA Director of Education Ruth Slavin said. “Whether or not it’s a student’s chosen profession or not, I am hoping that it will touch them in their four years.”
Additional resources have been added to the museum to help students engage more with the artworks. Besides the protocol placard next to each piece, the museum offers additional information in each exhibit space as well as storage drawers under many of the sculptures. This way, visitors can choose to learn more if they feel inclined to do so, but are not overwhelmed with information.
“We wanted to take things beyond labels. There are backstories (drawn) from popular culture and science that help people engage with the art in a different way,” Slavin said.
Art museums can often seem intimidating or irrelevant to a lot of people, especially if these people aren’t well versed in the subjects at hand. Walking up a long flight of stairs and passing between huge monolithic columns in order to enter a space that holds something virtually unknown is not always a comforting thought.
UMMA has combated this somewhat intimidating museum presence not only with approachable literature about the work in its collection, but by opening its walls with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. In doing so, UMMA essentially nixes the notion of the exclusive, academic institution and puts art in the streets (or the Diag) for the public to see.
The glass also allows the casual passerby to catch a glimpse of what more can be seen inside and perhaps will get the person to gather some courage to make the epic journey up the stairs. That’s one big hurdle — getting people into the museum. The next is keeping them there, and keeping them coming back.
The labyrinthine design of the museum forces visitors to weave through galleries they may never have walked through otherwise, potentially introducing them to things they never knew they were interested in. It’s nearly impossible to come in and head straight for a specific room without catching a glimpse of something completely unexpected. It’s an experience that may unfold hidden passions and interests in the arts.
Alexandra Miller, an LSA senior who attended the 24-hour opening, was especially impressed by the design of the vertical gallery — the three-story, awe-inspiring exhibit space that allows visitors to see into multiple exhibits at once.
“It’s almost like a CliffNotes (on the history of art) — it’s this spectrum; you can be looking at an abstract work and see Asian art out of the corner of your eye,” Miller said. “And maybe that person never goes to see Asian art; maybe it intimidates them, or they didn’t think they were interested in it. It makes you view art in that way — more interconnected, more fluid, less rigid, less boxed off.”
This same idea is reflected in the storage gallery in the upper balcony of the apse. The effect of having contemporary art, African art and Indian religious figures side-by-side with Japanese sculpture helps the viewer fill in the gaps between previously separated art forms and begin to better piece together the power that art has on understanding a shared universal past.
After a full week of opening events, it may seem appropriate to bask in the afterglow of the successful renovation. But the best part is still to be realized. UMMA was not just a student opening or a 24-hour museum marathon. It’s almost too simple to even write: UMMA is open for the rest of the year, the rest of your college education. UMMA is yours for the taking.