Imagine the second floor of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. No matter which doors you enter through — the Alumni Memorial Hall doors, accessed through a classical colonnade, or the modern entries of the Maxine and Stuart Frankel and the Frankel Family Wing — and no matter which path you follow through the museum, at some point you find yourself on a threshold. You look through the glass out toward State Street and realize you’re on a bridge between the old and the new.
This transition is not subtle. Structurally, there’s a marked change in materials as the marble flooring turns to wood. The collections change as well — from exhibits featuring European and American art to those with Asian and African works. It can be described as a change in atmosphere. The old wing emotes rigidity and respect; the new oozes light and energy.
A man named Joseph Rosa stands on a similar threshold. As the new director of UMMA, Rosa is charged with a unique responsibility: bridging the gap between the museum’s 150-year-old collection and its brand new expansion, intended to usher UMMA into the 21st century. And with over 18,000 pieces in UMMA’s collection and 53,000 square feet in the new Frankel Wing, there are a lot of possible forms this bridge could take. But Rosa is up for the challenge.
Rosa, soft spoken but energetic, describes his entry into the museum world as serendipitous. After receiving architecture degrees from both the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and Columbia University, he worked for various architectural firms. Through that work, Rosa became interested in the work of Albert Frey, about whom he ultimately wrote a book and put together and curated a show.
Rosa says he didn’t plan to get into a career with museums, but since that first show, he has been hooked. His body of work speaks for itself. Rosa has curated more than 30 exhibits at the four museums he’s worked at: the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburg, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Ruth Berson, the deputy director of exhibitions and collections at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art said Rosa was an “absolutely fabulous curator” when she worked with him during his time as the museum’s Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design.
She remembered, in particular, a series of exhibitions Rosa put together called “The Design Series” that looked at “cutting-edge work in architecture and design.”
“(The series) provided a forum for the … emerging people in the field,” Berson said. “He has an eye for what is coming up and is new.”
Chrysanthe Broikos, a curator at the National Building Museum, echoes Berson’s sentiments on how Rosa nurtured and led his department in Washington.
“He brought a lot of great shows to the museum and really tried to raise the profile of the (National Building Museum),” Broikos said. “He would actually design a lot of the smaller shows we were doing … and that helped in terms of the overall look and feel of the exhibition.”
But no museum tested Rosa more than the Art Institute of Chicago. In his position as the museum’s John H. Bryan Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design, Rosa was challenged with retooling his department as well as with overseeing a 300,000-square-foot expansion project.
Rosa was brought to Chicago to be, as he says, an “alchemist,” exponentially expanding the museum’s previously small collection in a short time span.
Zoë Ryan, the Art Institute’s Neville Bryan Curator of Design and interim John H. Bryan Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design, was actively involved with Rosa’s departmental changes.
Currently, Ryan and Rosa are co-curating an exhibit set to open at the Art Institute Dec. 11. It’s Rosa’s final exhibit at the Art Institute and is the result of Rosa’s and Ryan’s close collaboration for the past four years. The show, “Hyperlinks: Architecture and Design,” focuses on the idea that architects and designers can work with a base idea that has multiple iterations. The exhibit demonstrates that the germination of an idea can be universally applied.
“Someone doesn’t just make a chair,” Rosa explained, gesticulating wilding. “It’s a chair with other possibilities.”
“The hyperlinks show is thinking very broadly of what architecture and design mean,” Ryan added. “We want to have unique and original works in the museum.”
According to Ryan, this somewhat-radical exhibit reflects Rosa’s management style and what he can bring to UMMA — taking further the department, which brags the largest galleries devoted to art and design in the country.
“We are very forward-thinking,” she said. “(Rosa is) not afraid of avant-garde methods and approaches.”
After James Steward — UMMA’s sixth director who held the post for 11 years and oversaw the expansion project — left the University in 2009 to accept the directorship of the Princeton University Art Museum, the University formed a 14-person advisory search committee to find his replacement.
“In general, we had a large pool of applicants,” said committee member Raymond Silverman, director of the museum studies program. “Some people applied from academic museums … others applying from civic museums. Most of the applicants were people who had held high level curatorial positions, such as Joe Rosa.”
Rosa understood UMMA’s desire for a map-savvy driver.
“They were interested in someone who could help lead, direct, be collaborative and be the face for the institution,” he said. “I’ve done that and I love doing that. It’s a complicated little business if you don’t know the ropes.”
Besides being impressed with “how nice everyone was” during the laborious interview process and the University’s dedication to the arts, Rosa was attracted to UMMA because, as he said, “there’s nothing broken” within the institution.
“I was amazed,” he said. “In the contemporary state of art culture and museums as institutes, there’s a lot broken. I thought, ‘There are no potholes anywhere!’ and there usually is. And I was impressed to see this unconditional commitment to art from the provost and the president, which I think is, quite honestly, a rarity.”
He was also impressed by the excitement and enthusiasm of the University’s alumni community.
“When I said I was coming here, all the sudden all these people (I know) are from the University of Michigan,” Rosa said. “(They have) unconditional love for the University, which is brilliant, because this place gave people a start to a life that they treasure, and that’s what education should be about. That’s what art should be about.”
Rosa also felt at home at the University. As a member of both worlds UMMA encompasses — academia and museums — Rosa said UMMA “felt natural.” He was also excited by the opportunities that UMMA presents as a university museum.
“University art museums are really the most accessible place to do things that are questioning what a museum can be,” he said. “A university by nature challenges students to be the best and gives them the edge on whatever medium it is that they’re studying.”
“(I thought) ‘What could I do if I was there? How could I make it even more than it is? Can I contribute? Can I do what they need?’ ” he added. “Those are the parts I loved the most (about UMMA): feeling comfortable and just being energized by what the possibilities are.”
In coming to UMMA, Rosa brought with him big ideas for the museum. Integral to the implementation of his goals is utilizing the new Frankel wing. Opened in March of 2009, this wing represented a $41.9 million, 3-year expansion and refurbishing project.
For Silverman and Slavin, the expansion was nothing but positive.
“I think the University of Michigan now has the art museum it deserves,” Slavin said. “We’re very poised to fulfill the educational and University mission because of the addition. Everything from classes taking place on a daily basis to lectures and symposiums. We can showcase performing arts on a faculty and student level. So to me, the building is the physical opportunity to manifest the mission.”
Rosa is very interested in the “town/gown” debate, and many of the initiatives he plans to pursue speak to both of UMMA’s main constituent groups — the University and the surrounding community — and aim toward bridging the gap between these two circles.
Rosa said he is looking toward creating “three tiers” of improving the museum. The first: collaboration with other units, like the School of Social Work and the Ross School of Business, that might not have a museum to house their collections. Secondly, Rosa plans to hire a curatorial administrator “to manage guest curators and traveling shows” in order to give the museum’s current three curators more time to produce their own shows. And last, Rosa wants to fill any gaps within the collection by bringing in guest curators or traveling shows.
Rosa said that he also wants to “start using the museum in new ways” and is considering how UMMA can reach out to the student population and the Ann Arbor community.
“I want the building to become a nexus for students and people in Michigan,” he said. “We’re going to explore the possibility of having the building open twice a year … from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. with music and food because it should be a place where people come to mix. Another thing is possibly doing projections in the courtyard … from night to morning. (By) showing videos at night, even while the building is closed, the building is active.”
According to Rosa, just as important as collaboration between UMMA and other University departments is a relationship between UMMA and the greater academic community from outside of the University. He is also interested in establishing a solid future plan for the museum.
“My interest now is to be macro and then micro. We need to start acting like a regional art museum because we’re as big as one,” he said. “We need to start thinking about holding events here … Many people are interested in a black tie gala, a lecture series, an acquisition meeting.”
He added that UMMA will use the services of a consultant to help the museum with its “master plan.”
“One year, three years, five years, and then you revise before the fifth year for another five years. It allows everyone’s voice to be heard … It’s collective,” he said. “In five years, where do we want to be? … It’s the moment to question. It’ll be fun.”
Rosa also has more pedestrian goals for UMMA in the coming years, including analyzing branding, membership and how to bring more visitors to the museum.
“We want to bring in more people for the experience,” Rosa explained. “It’s not just foot traffic, it’s web traffic, when you curate a show and it travels, that’s your traffic. … I’d love to see our shop go online. We could have more merchandise. Things like that.”
So far, Rosa has found his time at UMMA “productive,” saying that “everything is going smoothly.”
“The previous director did an amazing job building this building,” he said. “And the previous directors did an amazing job building a collection. (UMMA is) one of the oldest and largest of the university museums, with a collection that’s quite good. That’s a great platform to build and play with.”
“University museums are not just little leagues,” he added. “They actually cultivate things that are going to the big places.”
For now, it seems that UMMA needs to successfully straddle the bridge between its past and its present, ushering in a new age of community interaction, while simultaneously creating a bridge for all of its constituents. But for Rosa, a director who understands bridges from a structural and theoretical standpoint, these goals are not out of reach.
“Everyone goes to the gym,” he said. “Everyone should belong to museums.”