Detroit mulls museum for contemporary art

Detroit is one of few major American cities without a contemporary art museum, to the chagrin of the local arts community. Many cities have several; even Toledo has one. Detroit’s status might soon change.

Richard Manoogian, a major patron to the Detroit Institute of Arts and CEO of the multinational Masco Corp., is considering building a contemporary museum, a place that would exhibit important international, national and local contemporary art, near the DIA. For that purpose, Manoogian purchased a warehouse at 4454 Woodward — a 20,000-square-foot, single-story building on the southeast corner of Garfield and Woodward, across Woodward from The Whitney.

Manoogian bought the building in 2001, when he was president of the DIA’s Board of Trustees, a position he held for more than 20 years. At the time of the purchase, he planned to develop the building into the contemporary arm of the DIA, says Sharon Rothwell, director of civic affairs for Masco.

But with the DIA in the midst of a $91 million renovation and expansion, as well as a reorganization of exhibits and curators under the leadership of new director Graham Beal, it was decided that adding a new off-site gallery would be too much for the DIA to handle, financially and otherwise, Rothwell says.

Now Manoogian is looking to form an independent, nonprofit contemporary arts center that might someday become part of the DIA, she says. Rothwell, who heads the project along with Manoogian’s local arts representative, Lillian Bauder, says Manoogian is undertaking a “serious investigation” to determine if there is long-term financial support for such an institution.

Exhibit space in Detroit has long been lacking for contemporary art, which is best displayed in large open spaces.

“The one missing piece in Detroit is a place where the international-quality contemporary and new art can be exhibited. Most major cities have one or more. That was the impetus. There’s a need there,” says Rothwell. “The DIA doesn’t really have a facility that would allow showing some of the larger new art that is being shown in cities throughout the country and the world.”

Informal discussions about a Detroit contemporary museum have gone on for years, but the probe is still in the “information-gathering stage,” Rothwell says. She hopes to present Manoogian with a formal proposal by summer, at which point he’s expected to decide whether a dream of the local arts community can become a reality.

Meetings are taking place with art benefactors, collectors, architects, developers and local gallery directors to determine:

• Whether a Detroit museum could attract exhibits of international-caliber contemporary work.

• Whether art patrons would support the facility over time.

• Whether the building should be renovated or demolished in favor of a new building.

• Up-front costs of renovation or construction, staffing and operation.

Manoogian isn’t new to philanthropy. His family name is found all over town, from the mayor’s mansion to Wayne State University campus and beyond. Manoogian is the son of Alex Manoogian, who founded Masco Screw Products in Detroit in 1923 to supply auto companies, and later developed a faucet that could control volume and temperature with one hand.

Richard Manoogian became president and CEO of Masco Corp., a leading manufacturer of home improvement products, in 1985. Based in Taylor, the company makes and sells everything from windows and ventilation systems to entertainment centers, kitchen cabinets and bathtubs. Masco’s revenue grew 20 percent last year to $10.94 billion, according to Reuters, and Manoogian was listed on Forbes 400 Richest Americans four times from 1991 to 2001.

Manoogian left the board of the DIA in 2003, because he felt comfortable with the leadership of Beal and changes he was undertaking, says Rothwell. Also, the 66-year-old wanted to slow down a bit, she says.

Still, the DIA is a major concern for Manoogian. He won’t build a new art institute if it will threaten the DIA’s funding, she says.

“It cannot take away from the DIA,” Rothwell says. “That is why we’re talking to contemporary collectors and others that might not be involved in the DIA. Is there a new group out there that might be interested in this venture, who aren’t involved in the DIA? Is there new funding out there?

“Is this a viable asset for the community for the long term? We’re looking into those things.”

Despite rumors to the contrary, Masco has not hired a consultant firm and is not leasing the building to anyone, Rothwell says.

Right now, the concept for the museum is in flux, with a wide range of possibilities under examination. There’s been discussion that the site should be an exhibition gallery instead of a museum, because the building isn’t big enough to house a major collection, Rothwell says. Some local artists and curators think the space should focus on exhibits, while others think it should provide a networking and resource center and showcase for area artists.

Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills is the closest thing Detroit has to a contemporary art museum, despite its distance from the center city. The museum has often been on the cutting edge of the international art scene.

“Cranbrook is the museum of modern and contemporary art in Detroit, and has been for 75 years,” says museum director Gregory Wittkopp.

“I don’t think anyone passionate about contemporary art would be opposed to having a new center on the scene. Our concern is how that would affect funding for existing institutions, big and small,” he says.

All local arts institutions are struggling, he says, especially in light of a recent 50 percent cut in state funding for the arts, and a 2002 voter rejection of a Wayne-Oakland county tax for the arts.

And sadly, as always, that’s what the story comes down to: money. In this case, the question is whether a new venture will threaten, or complement, the DIA.

Manoogian “is still very committed to the DIA. That is clearly still his love,” Rothwell says.


Read about car sculptures in Detroit and Windsor. Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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