Oct. 30 2013 12:00 AM

The Broad Art Museum tackles the impossible in its first year

MSU’s Broad Art Museum, celebrating its first birthday this week, was born into a wormhole of contradictory expectations.

It was supposed to be a global player in the art world while putting down roots in the community; challenge and provoke people but make them feel welcome; celebrate art for art’s sake while attracting tourist dollars; and snag big donors while critiquing the economic system in which they operate. Somehow, it would honor the art inherited from its predecessor, the Kresge Art Museum, while wiping the institution out.

Squaring the circle? That’s more like cubing the rhombic dodecahedron. Undaunted, Broad Museum Director Michael Rush thinks his infant prodigy is making progress on all fronts. “The museum has surpassed our wildest dreams in terms of visitorship, international reach and local reach,” Rush said.

“Its as if there was some sort of gurgling going on underneath the ground, waiting for this thing to happen, and when it happened it just burst.”

According to MSU, just under 120,000 people from all 50 states and over 80 countries visited the museum from its opening to Oct. 23, short of the 150,000 projected in a fall 2013 study from the Anderson Economic Group, released by MSU when the museum opened last fall.

Also, the roof doesn’t leak and that giant icicle that formed under the west overhang last winter fell without incident.

“Weve had precious few problems with the building,” Rush said. “That, too, is a great relief.” James Lawton, a professor of sculpture at MSU who is not associated with the Broad, chose to view the Broad in the context of some recent local history. Lawton was around when a giant sculpture by world renowned artist Michael Heizer, "This Equals That," lived out its short life on the state capital grounds, drawing tourists from around the world until local derision and neglect helped lead to its dismantling.

"That placed Lansing on the international map, and I was sorry to see its demise," Lawson said. "The Broad seems to be picking up where that left off, revitalizing the interest in the arts. Its a breath of fresh air in the community."

Artist Beverly Fishman, Head of Painting at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, said the art world is paying close attention to that plot of land at Grand River and Collingwood avenues. She said that’s due largely to the building, still only one of two in the United States designed by architect Zaha Hadid, and to the Broad’s curator, Alison Gass, a rising star in the art world.

“People are coming from all over the world to see the building,” Fishman said. “I know people from Chicago who go to see it. A year later, people are still saying, ‘I haven’t gotten there. I have to get up and see it.’” Susan Bandes, a professor of art, director of museum studies and former director of the Kresge Art Museum, has been checking in on the Broad regularly. Her students in a curatorial practice class do their final projects there, but otherwise shes not involved in the museum.

Bandes said the star of the show so far is still the building. As for the exhibits, “some have been better than others.”

“I know many people who have stayed away because it doesnt seem to resonate with them," Bandes said. "Its still to early to tell. Theyre kind of finding their voice.”

The Broad’s art and programs seem to resonate with many MSU students. Lawton said the museum was "a real draw" for MFA student applicants, but art is only part of the picture. Mark Sullivan, a professor of music composition, said the Broad has shown a knack for piquing diverse groups of students, including those who don’t go to museums.

“Most of the ones Ive talked to say they havent been there enough,” he said. “They want to check out the next thing. It seems to generate a hunger, and thats probably half the battle.”

With the international art world, MSU and a community wary of new art breathing down her neck, Gass is on the spot like no other curator in the art world right now, but she’s game for another year of multi-dimensional chess.

"It took a lot of energy just to get the museum open, do the shows and figure out how to hang on the slanted walls and so on," Gass said. "Now we need to pick up our heads and look around and make sure people know this is their museum and feel a part of it."

A variety of lively public programs, 60 and counting so far, have kept the museum hopping with art, music, ideas and even public meetings. (See related story, “A spiral going outward.”) That will continue to grow, Gass said. In the galleries, MSU art students and Michigan artists like Fishman, Lansing’s Bruce Thayer and Grand Rapids’ Lisa Walcott (the one with the bouncing racquetballs) will jostle with international artists, many of them young and emerging stars.

Is the circle squared yet? Not quite. One piece of unfinished business — call it the Kresge conundrum — is likely to dog the Broad into the next year and beyond.

“We continue to struggle to educate the community about the rotating exhibitions, and how were using the Kresge collection, and how it is still being exhibited,” Broad facilities manager Stepahanie Kribs said.

“We get a lot of questions about the Kresge Museum,” student aide Kiran Webster said. “Where are the pieces? Are they in storage?” About 7,500 works of art from Kresge, from Greek and Roman artifacts to Islamic manuscripts to European portraits and landscapes, are packed away, except for a smattering on the Broad’s walls, used to “contextualize” the contemporary art.

In 2003, two support groups, Better Art Museum and Friends of Kresge, unveiled $12 million plans to quadruple Kresge’s space and renovate the building, using privately donated funds, with the goal of doing justice to what is now called the historic collection.

Billionaire alumnus Eli Broad ratcheted the project up to a $28 million gift, the largest in MSU’s history, only he wanted a contemporary art museum. Until at least early 2011, the notion persisted that Kresge’s art would get a permanent home at the Broad. “With this iconic building, the arts community and art museum friends look forward to realizing their long held ambitions for exhibitions and display space,” a “Friends” booklet declared in late 2010.

Budget constraints shrank the Broad Museum in the planning phase, but one source said that by removing a wing earmarked for Kresge art, MSU was bending over backward to please Broad.

The Kresge pieces are available for study.

Bandes said her students are granted easy access to the works they are studying.

In the run-up to the Broad’s opening, Rush emphasized that no more than 2 percent of Kresge’s collection was ever on display anyway.

“Actually, more of the collection is going to be seen [at the Broad museum], because so much of the artwork has not been rotated enough,” he said.

That’s clearly not happening, nor is it likely to. The Broad’s current exhibit of portraits by Hope Gangloff, its most generous gesture to Kresge yet, uses about 25 “historic” pieces.

Even when the Broad lets grandma out of the attic, some say the result does justice to neither the old nor the new. The contextualizing scheme is hard to pull off successfully, Bandes said. "It works on a visual level," she said, citing some "interesting connections" in the Gangloff show. "What is missing is the next level that I go to the museum for, which is to learn about the specific art, and to learn about its history and significance,” Bandes said.

Lawton is a firm fan of the Broad, but he said he, too, has "mixed feelings” about the Kresge conundrum.

"I’m glad they’re using the Kresge art, but they still have the Kresge structure intact,” he said. “That’s quite an extensive collection, and it wouldnt take much to designate the old structure as the permanent collection. Its the best of two worlds."

The discussion, and many others, will doubtless continue as the Broad moves into its terrible twos.

A lot of people who think the drink has gone unstirred for too long around here can’t wait. Cranbrook’s Fishman is one of them.

“I understand that change is difficult for many, but artists thrive on change,” Fishman said. “I love change and I love the new and I love quality. The Broad is all of that.”

Related Article

Lavish and Mahogany

by Rich Tupica

NYC-based band Mahogany headlines Broad Art Museum gala Friday night

Mahogany may be billed as a New York City band, but the group’s deepest roots go back to its first show in 1995 at the now defunct Caf Latt in East Lansing.

Founding member Andrew Prinz, a former Waverly High School student, was a Michigan State University student when he formed the dreampop band in 1995. The band, which includes Prinz and Jaclyn Slimm, layers experimental landscapes of sounds over themed post-modern lyrics involving theories, architecture and cities.

Perhaps that fitting motif is what prompted organizers at the Broad Art Museum to pick the group to perform at GLOBAL, its one-year anniversary Gala on Friday.

The event promises a “lavish evening of art, music, drinks, food and fashion. … Let your attire become your palette, and your favorite work of art your inspiration.” VIP and general admission tickets are available for purchase online. (Attendees can “crash” the gala at 9 p.m. and get in for $20 at the east entrance.)

During his formative years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in Lansing, Prinz became enamored with post-punk and new wave bands like Joy Division, New Order and Depeche Mode. But Prinz, who studied music theory and composition and plays the cello, said he was also pulling inspiration from more academic composers who were working with electronics.

“Over the years I would say the music has become much more delineated and architected — maybe a crossover into pop art,” Prinz said.

Mahogany was offered a record deal after that inaugural gig at the coffee shop. Prinz moved to the Big Apple to not only focus on music, but also his parallel career in graphic design.

As the band continued to push artistic boundaries, Prinz declared Mahogany a sovereign city-state in November 2009.

“I think anyone can really declare,” Prinz said with a chuckle. “If you’re interested at an artistic level, it means coming up with things like your city logo, an imaginary concept of how the city would work.

“We don’t really have one city we call home, in a sense. In the UK we have a huge web following, but in the United States, it’s mainly around the coasts. So the notion of it being a city comes from the fan base as well.”


Music by Mahogany Broad Art Museum Friday, Nov. 1 6:30 p.m., VIP preview party 7:30 p.m., Doors for all guests General admission $100 $20 after 9 p.m. broadmuseum.msu.edu/ GLOBAL facebook.com/ MahoganyInternational