Sept. 14 2017 08:12 AM

Gift to Broad Museum firms up plans to exhibit former Kresge Collection

A conceptual drawing of the current Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.
Courtesy Photo

Bringing a saga that stretches back to ancient Greece — and even further back — full circle, MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum announced this week that it has been awarded $1 million from the MSU Federal Credit Union to support an expansion across Grand River Avenue. The expansion “will provide increased access and research for the MSU Broad’s 7,500 piece permanent collection,” also known as the former Kresge collection.
This collection ranges from ancient and medieval works to the era of Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol, with thousands of works from non-Western civilizations. Since the Broad Museum superseded the Kresge and switched gears to contemporary art in 2012, the collection has languished mostly in storage, exhibited sparingly or used to “contextualize” contemporary exhibits at the Broad.

Broad Museum director Marc-Olivier Wahler revealed plans for the former Kresge collection in a fall 2016 interview with City Pulse, calling the collection “a pillar of the museum.” He said the plan was “concrete and very real,” but still lacked funding.

That gap was filled by this week’s $1 million gift from MSUFCU, part of a $5.5 million gift spread among 10 areas of the university across the arts, business and science. The Broad has not announced a location yet, except to say it will be "across Grand River Avenue."

It may also heal a lingering sore spot left by the Broad’s handling of the Kresge collection.

“We could attract again people who have been a little bit bitter about having donated work to the Kresge and then learning their donation is going into storage,” Wahler said.

The new space may contain some contemporary art, but would be “90 percent” art from the former Kresge collection, Wahler said.

“We want to engage all these people who were active with the Kresge,” he said.

Kresge closed its doors in July 2011, just before the Broad Museum, devoted to the contemporary art favored by major donor Eli Broad, opened in November 2012. By that time, Kresge had amassed about 7,500 works of art, from Greek and Roman artifacts to Islamic manuscripts to European portraits and landscapes and works by 20th-century artists such as Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall and Salvador Dalí.

Wahler said the former Kresge collection is part of what makes the Broad Museum a genuine museum, as opposed to an art center with rotating exhibits.

“An art center is more on the horizontal dynamic, but a museum is more on the vertical, it has roots,” Wahler said. “It’s very important to give this verticality of thoughts. We have a fantastic collection. “

Plans for a new art museum at MSU go back to 1987, but Kresge supporters’ goal, well into the construction phase of the Broad Museum, was to get more room for the cramped Kresge collection, not to see the space close.

Plans for a glassy, 32,000-square-foot expansion of Kresge — then only 10,000 square feet in size — were unveiled in 2003, with two phases to be completed by 2009. The museum’s ambitious goals seemed in reach after a series of fundraisers and meetings with potential donors, spearheaded by an enthusiastic support group, BAM (Better Art Museum, Because Art Matters).

“The quality of the collection has always far outclassed the facility that housed it,” former Kresge director Susan Bandes said in 2003.

Besides the more well-known names, Kresge was home to exotic gems such as a 12-century Chinese tiger pillow — finest in the West, according to the museum plaque — a Dalí painting, an ancient Roman mosaic floor, a sculpture by Auguste Rodin, a mobile by Alexander Calder, a box by Joseph Cornell, Buddhas, fertility gods, a 17th-century oil portrait of St. Anthony of Padua and many works from the mid-20th century. The Kresge’s “Art on Paper” collection alone has thousands of woodcuts, lithographs and silkscreens by masters like Kandinsky and Chagall.

“If the exhibit can be faulted, it’s for an extra-artistic reason — the inadequacy of the exhibition galleries,” art critic Roger Green said in 2003. “The burgeoning art collection deserves a proper home.”

But when billionaire MSU alumnus Eli Broad took a personal tour of Kresge in 2004, he set a chain of unexpected events in motion.

Broad was unimpressed by the building, the collection and its obscure location in the middle of campus. Rather than helping expand Kresge, he offered a more “transformative” gift: $26 million, later beefed up to $28 million, the largest gift in the university’s history, for a whole new museum, designed by a one of the world’s top architects.

But Broad wanted the new museum to be devoted to his own passion, contemporary art.

At first, Kresge donors and support groups welcomed the advent of the Broad. Better Art Museum even continued its long series of fundraisers and gave the money to the Broad, hoping the new museum would accommodate Kresge’s art.

In a 2007 statement, Bandes said she was delighted with the Broad gift, and predicted the new museum would be “a fitting home for the display, interaction with and contemplation of works of art in the university’s collection and in special exhibitions.”

The last Friends of Kresge booklet, published in 2010, clung to the same hope: “The arts community and art museum friends look forward to realizing their long held ambitions for exhibitions and display space.”

A source close to Kresge, who asked not to be named, said that early designs for the Broad Museum included gallery space set aside for the Kresge collection, but the space disappeared in later drafts.

After the Broad opened, university officials kept insisting that the Kresge collection had not been deep-sixed, but merely become a part of the Broad Museum.

University officials, including Linda Stanford, never made it clear why Kresge had to die in order for the Broad to live, but the Broad’s first director, Michael Rush, came close to identifying Eli Broad’s fingerprints in a 2012 interview with City Pulse.

“When you have philanthropists entering the situation at that level of giving, which is extraordinary, and it is the
donor intent for the museum to be a contemporary one, then that is what we embrace,” Rush said.

Rush died in 2015. His successor, Wahler, surveyed the Broad’s assets after arriving in East Lansing in July 2016 and decided it was time to take better advantage of a neglected asset.

“It’s a university museum, it’s a university collection,” Wahler said. “This collection is made for students, for research, and for the community. For me, this is crucial. It’s not only an arts center where we do activities. This collection is a pillar of the museum.”