Makeover For a Motor City Gem

When you get off the freeway and head toward the Detroit Institute of Arts, you first notice the streets of boarded-up houses, cracked sidewalks and vacant lots sprouting weeds. But just a few blocks farther, you're cruising into an urban oasis of wide avenues, handsome buildings and the neoclassical museum itself, built in 1927, at the height of the city's prosperity. Detroit is really two cities. One is a shrunken metropolis with a battered economy and a big image problem—a controversial new report issued by a division of the Congressional Quarterly calls it the most dangerous city in the United States. But the other Detroit is a city of wondrous treasures —the symphony, the vibrant jazz and hip-hop scene, examples of stunning architecture. The art museum, known as the DIA, may be the greatest of all. It is stuffed with masterpieces—including Greek and Roman antiquities, eight paintings by Rubens, Bruegel's "The Wedding Dance," the first van Gogh to enter an American museum (a self-portrait, bought in 1922) and the spectacular 1933 Diego Rivera mural cycle, "Detroit Industry."

The city of Detroit owns the DIA—both the building and the collection—and, until recently, operated the museum. But as the tax base diminished and public and private money dried up, the museum, inevitably, was hurt: in the early 1990s, half the staff was fired and nearly half the galleries closed. In 1998, the private Founders Society—DIA's board of trustees—took over running the museum and raising most of its budget. They've taken a huge gamble: they've spent $158 million to expand the building and hired a director to rethink the museum's mission. Now that it's opened, the rest is up to the public.

This isn't a story about eye-popping museum architecture serving as a magnet for potential tourists. In fact, the less said the better about designer Michael Graves's decision to wrap the old museum's two boxy wings in pale gray marble. What matters is inside. Not only are the expanded, renovated galleries easier to navigate but the art is displayed in a radical, user-friendly way. The director Graham Beal, a bow-tied Brit, was determined to extinguish the deathly whiff of elitism, and ordered audience surveys. "We learned that visitors have apprehension entering each gallery," he says. "People want to be uplifted; they want to learn. But we have to engage them."

Beal tossed out the old art-historical approach—you won't see words like "baroque" on the wall labels—in favor of themes and storytelling that explain why an artwork was made and why it's in the museum. Eighteenth-century Italian paintings, furniture and objects are grouped under a loose narrative the museum calls "The Grand Tour of Italy." A display case of ancient Greek jars is transformed, with the touch of a button, into a virtual moving illustration to show how each vessel was used in the mixing of wine and water. African objects are explained in terms of their original use—a sharp turn away from the Western esthetics that have, pardon the expression, decontextualized African art ever since Picasso first saw a tribal mask in Paris. "We're not treating the work of art as a trophy by a great artist," says Beal. "We're trying to relate it to its real purpose, how the work relates to its surroundings."

He isn't the first curator to take a populist tack—nor can he entirely dodge critics who will claim he's dumbing down the art experience. But Beal says that "most people who work in museums don't understand the gap between the intelligent visitor and how we present art. What we're doing is being straightforward." He's also trying to reach a much more diverse public than most museums. All kinds of classical- arts organizations—just think of opera companies—are desperate for younger audiences, but the DIA also needs to bridge the vast ethnic and socioeconomic divides of Detroit and its suburbs. The city is more than 80 percent African-American; the surrounding region is home not only to middle-class and wealthy whites but to an increasingly diverse population, including one of the largest Muslim communities in the United States. Early in his tenure at the DIA, Beal established a department for African-American art with its own curator. For the new Islamic galleries, opening next spring, he and his staff have devised a route for Muslim visitors so they won't pass artworks that depict nudity. The museum has also aggressively pursued what Beal terms "community connections" —or outreach. Glenda Price, a retired college president and DIA trustee, recalls her surprise at the city's level of "suspicion and tension" when she moved here 10 years ago from Atlanta, also a largely African-American city. "It's now beginning to abate," she says—and she sees the museum as an agent for further change. "You go to the DIA and you see all sorts of people. It really has the ability to create community."

What is helping the museum to tap into that diverse community is the quiet renaissance of Detroit's downtown. "There's a burgeoning revival," says Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy in nearby Bloomfield Hills. "There's a developing design district, a huge number of condo conversions, people moving into lofts." The symphony hall has been renovated, restaurants and clubs are beginning to thrive, and the sports stadiums are bringing in big crowds. Two years ago attendance at the museum surged as thousands of visitors descended on downtown Detroit in the days before the Super Bowl.

Businesses have been moving back downtown, too—including the marketing firm owned by Edsel Ford II, whose grandfather, the son of Henry Ford, was a key benefactor of the DIA, along with his wife. "They had a great love for Detroit and for the Institute of Arts," says Ford. "Just think how controversial it was for him to ask Diego Rivera—a communist—to come to Detroit and paint those murals." The DIA is full of such legacies from the old families of Detroit—the Fords and the Dodges, the Scrippses and the Booths. If the museum can lure the public of today to see those treasures of the past, it ought to thrive well into the future.

Makeover For a Motor City Gem | Culture