After two-and-a-half years and $41.9 million worth of renovation and expansion, University students will finally get a glimpse of the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s long-awaited makeover tonight.

(Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen/Daily)

The length of construction means that for many students on campus, this evening’s preview will be their first chance to experience the museum, which houses more than 18,000 works of art and is now more than double its previous size.

During a walkthrough of the museum yesterday, UMMA Director James Steward’s rueful grimace made it clear that he realized this all too well.

“How many of you were in the museum before (the expansion)?” he asked Daily staff on a tour yesterday. “Probably not many.”

The Museum’s doors will be open tonight from 8 p.m. until midnight. Planned exclusively with students in mind, the preview features two DJs and Ann Arbor band The Great Divide, who will perform amid the oil paintings and sculpture of the European and American art gallery.

Most events will be occurring in the Apse — a wide-open, columned space in the middle of the old wing — but every gallery in the newly expanded museum is open for exploration.

Steward emphasized that connecting with students is one of the Museum’s major goals, and many of the features of the new section — officially the Frankel Wing — are designed to enable that.

The purpose of the expansion is to create what Steward calls a “town square for the arts” by bringing students, faculty and community into direct, unmediated contact with art and with each other.

“We want it to be like the Diag,” Steward said.

He places the Museum among older traditions of collaboration and exchange with suitably high hopes.

“Think of the marketplace in Athens,” Steward said. “It wasn’t just a marketplace — it was also where Socratic dialogue took place, where ideas were exchanged.”

The space in the old wing has been vastly modified to bring visitors closer to the art. Whole ceilings have been redone, and new skylights filter light into the Alumni Memorial Hall in a way that would have been unthinkable three years ago.

“We’ve been able to reopen the views through the building,” Steward said.

They’re meant to be contextualizing, placing the contemporary American architecture of Louis Tiffany, of Tiffany and Company, in clear view of European sculpture. Looking across the Apse, you can see inside a room of European art that showcases the newest and most prized of the Museum’s recent acquisitions.

Of the museum’s the 3,500 pieces added to the collection in the past decade, a new painting by Joseph Wright of Derby has never been displayed anywhere and was long believed lost.

Steward spoke proudly of acquiring the piece in favor of the Art Institute of Chicago. “It was a coup for us,” Steward said.

Despite the other attractions, the Frankel Wing is what’s ultimately on display here, and rightly so.

Finally, the Museum has a space for modern art. At the heart of the new wing, the three-tiered Vertical Gallery is a startling intersection of cultures and displays. Asian, contemporary, and African art are all in view from different angles in the gallery.

On the ground of the Frankel Wing, and in full view of passersby, is a display from emerging artist Walead Beshty that may be the most exciting part of the Museum. Beshty’s work features a glass floor meant to fracture over time as visitors experience it, at least for the eight weeks until a new artist recreates the space — a rotating cycle that the museum will continue to do.

The student preview, extravagant as it may be, is just the first in a series of opening events. The public reopening on Saturday will take shape as a 24-hour open house — a vehicle for broad exposure used by several other museums, including the Detroit Institute of Art in its 2007 reopening.

Externally, the renovation is an immensely modern, imposing work. Internally, the focus seems to be on unity. Uniting the observer with Art — Art with a capital ‘A,’ Art with no boundaries between cultures or the status of the observer. The preview tonight will provide, finally, the chance for Steward’s hard-fought battle to be realized by the audience he most hopes to accommodate: students.

— Daily Arts Writer Kimberly Chou contributed to this report.

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