Signs of the time

Nov 21, 2007 at 12:00 am

I can't remember every detail of what the museum looked like before this grand transformation, but I remember how it made me feel, both as a kid and as an adult. From my childhood, I think of Kresge Court with its gothic overcast and the warmth that enveloped me while sitting at that one wooden window seat in the Renaissance galleries. I recall touching the soft grizzled marble of Greek statuary. It was like holding everyone's old hand.

The learning came later, I suppose, when I first laid eyes on German expressionist Otto Dix's self-portrait, with his icy gaze piercing like "cold blue thumbtacks" — to lift a Margaret Atwood phrase. Jean Dubuffet's British dandy, from 1954, shocked me like the sight of some dude lollygagging across the gallery with a walking stick and shit on his chapeau.

The pleasure the DIA has given me over the years is hedonistic rather than cerebral. I know it's romantic or provincial or something, but the museum was the only church I ever went to.

Another generation's memories are about to be made. How will these children and young adults interpret the museum the first time they step inside? It's one of the few places in town where they can stare at something other than a glowing screen.

Well, for the most part anyway.

Graham Beal eagerly joined the staff as director in 1999, after trustees made the decision to renovate and expand the museum because the infrastructure wasn't standing the test of time. But Beal says the idea of reinstalling the permanent collection was what grabbed him, made him move from the West Coast, where he was director at the Los Angeles County Museum.

"I came to believe the story of art itself, as told style by style, fashion by fashion, was as much an obstruction as it was a path," Beal says, over the phone. "It requires learning about terminology and jargon, and I wanted to get back to the original human purpose. At some time, someone asked someone else to make something. That human connection is important." Six years and $158 million later, the museum is ready for its close-up.

How exhilerating it is to get back in there, walking into the Great Hall, knowing you have endless options. That's pretty much the buzz around town. What's funny is that surveys show, as author and Wayne State University professor Jeffrey Abt attests in his article "Reinstalling the DIA — rethinking the museum's role" (on, most of us weren't visiting often. Aside from special exhibitions, only a small number of people went frequently. This renovation gives more of us reason to excitedly return and look with fresh eyes.

The favorites (mine's Frederic Church's 1862 "Cotopaxi," with a sky lit up like lava) are located where they've always been, although the Islamic and Asian galleries are not yet open. Approximately the same number of objects are on view, with a few wonderful exceptions: the expansion of the Native-American, African and African-American art galleries, each with an abundance of works exhibited in centrally located rooms, rather than relegated to the dungeons. The museum deserves props for excavating and preserving the original serpentine Pewabic tile lining the walls in what used to be a Pre-Columbian gallery and is now the intro to the modern art section.

The permanent collection's reinstallation — according to such universal social themes as time or identity, rather than a "retrospectively imposed art history," as Beal calls it — is innovative. I particularly like the 18th century "Splendor of the Hour"galleries, breaking up the rooms according to daily rituals.

Ironically enough, I found more examples of intelligent, descriptive text in the gift shop. Some of the terms used in the museum now are so simplified as to occasionally render them irrelevant. A bullet-pointed list of names with a few additional lines is simply a waste of good wall space.

The size and positioning of these new signs, as the Tesla song goes, fuck up the scenery and break my mind. Posted next to paintings, nearly as big as them and bright white, too, the new wall labels mediate my experience like some chaperone. I used to feel like a trip to the DIA could transport me to another place and time. But now, in a few instances, I feel like a kid again stuck in the Science Center, where the light show is the exhibit. Such blinking info as "Color sets the mood," which is projected above a painting titled "Man with a Green Beard," grabs my attention before the art does. This may seem like quibbling, but I worry that the experimentation leads to more change. The new instructional panels brand the permanent collection with iconic images. It's like getting stuck in a tourist trap, yet the best thing about the DIA is that, well, you're not. In a modern gallery, a reproduction of a Van Gogh self-portrait hangs a few feet down from the real thing, circa 1887. Getting close to the painting, you can check out the pink rims of Van Gogh's tired eyes, and notice his left ear, a throbbing reddish-purple. The spirit and size of the small portrait are dwarfed by the blown-up repro nearby. It reminds me of when I worked at a museum and visitors questioned whether or not the art was "real." Here, they'd have good reason. What's irritating is the implication that "learning" is merely about digesting facts.

Administrators say that visitor panels were at the root of the reinstallation, so I spoke with Sheila Ylen, a young mother who runs a children's daycare from her west side home. Not a frequent visitor, she volunteered about a year ago, offering her opinions on what changes needed to be made — from the display and the lighting to the wording describing the artwork.

In a phone conversation, she says, "I can't really remember wanting much to change ... one thing that I did want to see more of was advertising, that's what gets me to go there." When pressed about the issue of these enhanced educational tools, she says, "I like the head phones, directing you through the museum. It brings it more to life. But I don't read the panels. When my husband does, I'm just like, 'Let's go.' Maybe that's just me."

I totally agree with her. One new gadget the DIA employs is a hand-held audio-visual guide to the Rivera Court that you can choose to use. The prerecorded narration raises big questions, such as whether or not Rivera meant to reference communism or the American flag with the symbol of a star. Importantly, this educational tool doesn't interfere with the visual palette.

Since she participated in the panel, Ylen says she stops by the museum for jazz or other performances mostly, to remind herself that she can be interested in things other than children and (you knew it had to be coming): "I also appreciate the vintage, older look that's kept up," she says. "That's what I like about it. A lot of the panelists talked about the rounding staircase; they had stories about going there when they were younger, and being able to bring their kids and grandkids there now."

Beal says things will certainly change as the staff gauges the general audiences' reaction. "There's already a few things that I've noticed," he adds. The fact that we feel we can question decisions is testimony to the crucial role the DIA plays now in the community. This world-class museum feels so very much ours.

The grand opening is 10 a.m., Friday, Nov. 23, with an artist party that night 9:30 p.m. to midnight, with music by Immigrant Suns in Kresge Court. The museum will stay open for 32 hours straight, closing at 6 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 24; Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]