Oct. 30 2013 12:00 AM

How artists learned to stop worrying and love a ‘big origami folded thing’

In April, MSU art students seized a rare chance to romp in one of the world’s newest and pointiest art museums.

One painting snaked up the wall, dangled from the ceiling and snuck along the floor to the emergency exit. Visitors turned their necks in all directions to follow student artist Stephen Stradley’s wayward ribbon of color and texture, “The Business of Decentralization.”

Like dozens of artists from around the world who showed their work in the Broad’s first year, the students absorbed a crucial lesson.

“When you have a building like that, you just have to approach it as an opportunity, not something that has to be overcome in some way,” museum Director Michael Rush said.

Curator Alison Gass took that maxim to the max in the splashy “Patterns” exhibit that dominated the museum through spring and summer.

“It was inspired entirely by the faade of the building,” Gass said. “Something incredibly geometric, iterative, generative — it goes and goes and goes.”

For “Patterns,” artist Alyson Shotz spun a 60-foot-long, undulating web of string that covered an entire wall of the spacious Minskoff Gallery. It was Shotz’s longest “string drawing” yet.

“A lot of my work deals with folding, and the whole exterior of the building looks like a big origami folded thing.”

Shotz said. “My work has a lot to do with geometry, and so does Zaha Hadid’s.”

Inigo Manglano-Ovalles "Red Factor," an upended geodesic dome commissioned especially for the Minskoff Gallery, looked like it was about to float into the sky. A borealis-like array of plastic tubes by Teresita Fernandez floated over the “Patterns” show.

“That space really wants sculpture,” Rush said.

It got something else entirely when artist Hope Gangloff waded into the Minskoff Gallery this fall and stacked multiple rows of portraits, salon-style, with equilateral equanimity, treating a 30-foot-high whale maw as if it were a cozy garret.

"Nobody hangs paintings salon style anymore, but she responded to the architecture and made it work," Gass said.

A couple of ornate fainting couches warped the gallery’s clean lines into a Dali-esque tableau. Gangloff’s salon seemed perched at the edge of time.

Other site-specific projects at the Broad are modest but no less effective. Michelle Handelman’s vampire-ish multichannel video, “Irma Vep: the last breath,” was tucked into a lower level gallery that resembles a chamber from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

“We didnt have to build walls to accomplish that,” Museum Director Michael Rush said. “That was already there.”

Flat art can also thrive at the Broad.

Contrary to outward appearances, the gallery walls really do go straight up and down.

An interior first-floor gallery, known informally as “the jewel-box,” is the only space in the museum that’s completely enclosed. (A big glass door lets in natural light.) It’s now home to artist Beverly Fishman’s vivid enamel-on-stainless-steel paintings based on EKG readouts and other medical motifs. “It’s a spectacular space, and, to be honest, there were no challenges,” Fishman said. “You can see the work from far away but also feel it was human scale. It was the perfect space for my work.”

Cambridge, England-based artist Sam Jury told Art in America magazine she was "pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the interior" of the Broad. Jury featured prominently in both opening shows, with two videos and five large-scale photographic prints.

"Theres also a real sense of the inside and the outside coming together," Jury said. "The space itself is a nice place to navigate and just a nice area to walk around and be in, and I think it makes you want to stay in the space longer and come back."

As the museum’s first year unfolded, the staff discovered that the building’s openness to natural light had its pros and cons.

In the glassy education wing, Shotz hung 280 strands of acrylic discs up to 12 feet long to greet the relentless sun.

But Rush said the light at the Broad can be “pretty ferocious” is spots.

“Weve had to adapt and find creative solutions,” he said. “When it comes to paintings and photography, you cant expose them to excessive light.”

Natural light was a key element in architect Zaha Hadid’s design, but Rush and his staff are pulling light-sensitive works away from windows and considering “more permanent” adjustments.

For other works of art, the sun is a friend. A prismatic glass mobile by Pae White glittered in the second floor south gallery during the summer, working well with the optics of the space. Kiran Webster, a student guide at the m u s e u m , couldn’t get enough of it.

“As the sun moves around, you would see the piece in a totally different light from 10 oclock to 3 oclock,” Webster said.

Artists are finding many ways to exploit the Broad, but MFA student Ryan Groendyk used some witty jiu-jitsu on the whole building last April.

At the Broad Museum’s opening festivities a year ago, Spartans had to suck up a lot of hot air from Hadid and her associate Patrik Shumacher about how the campus made a great “frame” for her superstar building. Even New York Times architecture critic Joseph Giovannini called MSU’s historic north campus “distinguished background” ripe for a new “foreground building” to energize the area.

Turnabout is fair play. To make a political and ecological point — and show off his “damned fly” auto detail work — Groendyk parked a doubly modified Mercedes right in the Broad’s sculpture garden near the east entrance. (With permission.)

As if to tweak the long limos parked outside the Broad during its opening-week orgies and donor schmoozes, Groendyk removed all the corporate logos from the car, reducing the famous Mercedes logo to a simple circle.

To back up his symbolism with engineering, he modified the car’s primary fuel system to run on biodiesel and the secondary system to run on vegetable oil, making the car “as carbon neutral as possible.”

He compared the resulting “ready made” work of art to Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal, only more attractive.

What would Hadid say if she saw Groendyk’s old school automobile parked outside her paragon of parametricism?

“She’d ask me for a ride,” Groendyk said.

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'A spiral going outward'

Tammy Fortin plugs music, dance, bicycles and insects into the Broad 

From the start, exciting things were supposed to happen at the Broad Museum. Hanging a few pictures and piping in Mozart was not an option.

When the Broad Museum’s public programming was entrusted to Tammy Fortin in the winter of 2012-‘13, she had to move fast to get the cultural lay of the land in MSU and greater Lansing. Her strategy: massive doses of caffeine.

“I just started connecting the dots, finding out who might want to do something at the Broad, and asking them out for coffee,” she said. “The first month, I probably had 100 meetings and 500 cups of coffee.”

In its first year, the Broad has put on a wild variety of concerts, lectures, films and unclassifiable happenings, from a Brooklyn guitarist who jams with insects to a salon-style jazz concert to indie rock shows to politically charged panel discussions. Far-flung visitors and local talent have both found a showcase.

There’s no medium Fortin won’t tap to make art pop a little more. To bring one of the year’s headier art exhibits, “Blind Field,” closer to home, she led a July bike ride through greater Lansing, linking the itinerary to the urban landscapes of 20 young Brazilian artists at the Broad.

“That bike tour was genius,” Broad Museum Director Michael Rush said. “The Brazil exhibition was a little heavy on the conceptual side, which is fine. We want to stretch people. But associating conditions in Lansing with conditions in Brazil through the pleasurable activity of a bike trip was really fantastic. We’re lucky to have her.”

Fortin, 44, arrived in East Lansing in September 2012 from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she was media arts assistant.

MSU music composition professor Mark Sullivan, a longtime presence on the area’s avant-garde arts scene, felt a sea change at the Broad when Fortin came on board.

“For a while, I was sort of waiting to see what they were going to be all about,” Sullivan said. “Would the museum be this bubble, apart from everything? At some point, around the first of the year, things went into a different mode. They put their money where their mouth is. They’re actually willing to get out there and do programs with people. It’s a fresh and encouraging opportunity.”

When Fortin asked Sullivan to join a dialogue keyed to an art exhibit in March, they didn’t just sit and talk about Guillermo Kuitca’s “Diarios,” an exhibit then running at the Broad. They riffed on the artist’s ideas about creativity in visual art and music and added some of their own. One of

Sullivan’s students performed 4’33”, John Cage’s infamous silent piece of music. Sullivan performed an electronic piece by Hungarian composer Gyorgi Ligeti, with a visual projection of the score.

Sullivan told Fortin he felt like they were playing jazz together.

“It was a blast,” he said. “I haven’t been able to do anything like that around here for a while.”

In all, the Broad hosted about 60 events in its first year, from artist talks to films to concerts.

Fortin’s favorite so far was perhaps the strangest:

Brooklyn-based Zach Layton’s Insect Chorus concert May 19.

Layton has mixed his bowed electric guitar with recorded insect noises, but the Broad concert went one better. For the first time, Layton jammed in real time with carefully miked gnawing and chirping insects.

Art plugs into everything. As if to prove that no MSU department, however shy and horn-rimmed, could turn down a date with the glamorous Broad, insects from MSU’s Entomology Department were imported for the occasion. Live insects joined the music and glass displays of exotic specimens served as art. The result was a strange and transcendent afternoon.

“The MSU Bug House was on it,” Fortin said. “They seized the opportunity, came in with all these amazing insects and they were so easy and fun to work with.”

Layton lingered after the concert, talking with about 20 inquiring listeners. He told Fortin he hadn’t met up with so appreciative an audience in a long time.

Fortin was first hired last fall to manage the Broad’s opening exhibit, a clever mass infiltration of MSU and the surrounding community.

German artist Jochen Gerz came to East Lansing to mount a massive conceptual art project, “The Gift,” a project that involved training student photographers to take hundreds of portraits of people from all over the community.

Fortin handled the job so deftly she was eased into a new role: curatorial program manager.

Dan Hirsch, the Broad’s first public program director, had left the museum in early winter, having made little inroads into the community.

Now Fortin found herself juggling “assistant curator stuff’ with producing public programs. She sensed the possibilities instantly.

“We’re within MSU, but we’re kind of on the edge, even if you look at our physical space,” she said. “We have the ability to pull these different threads, reach into different departments, to connect them with the visual arts.”

Fortin and the Broad staff plan to troll the university for thinkers and researchers from any department to bounce art into the world in new ways. It helps that the Broad is not part of any academic department at MSU — not even the Art Department. Fortin and the staff can tap into any brain at the university and set up an event without getting into a turf war.

“We can invite a scientist and have them talk about how molecular biology might relate to a work on view in the gallery,” Fortin said. “You might never look at a painting the same way again.”

Fortin wanted the programming to grow “organically” from the home grown talent pool around MSU, Lansing and East Lansing, to encompass visitors from anywhere in the world.

“I look at it as a spiral going outward,” she said.

In April, for the opening of an exhibit of MFA students at MSU, Fortin tapped into the local rock scene with Lansing area band Yogurt Culture and John Olson of post-industrial noise band Wolf Eyes.

In September, the Broad and City Pulse hosted an outdoor concert with Lansing-based bands People’s Temple and Wayne Szalinski to kick off a salon-style exhibit of portraits by Hope Gangloff. The artist gave an informal talk on the same night of the concert.

As the night went on, people who came for the concert on the lawn filtered into the museum and museum-goers drifted outside, attracted to the music.

Last month, MSU Jazz Professor Etienne Charles played a sizzling gig in the same gallery, taking advantage of the salon atmosphere while wrestling with brittle acoustics unsuited to jazz.

The Broad’s unbroken glass, steel and varnished wood floors make for a lively sound — too lively for many acoustic instruments. Some of the high notes at Charles’ concert might be still bouncing around the Minskoff Gallery until 2018. The Broad staff is tinkering with acoustic softeners for some spaces, but curator Alison Gass said it would be better to learn a lesson from the most successful art of the past year and roll with the building rather than fight it.

“We’re not a concert hall, and we should embrace that,” Gass said.

To that end, Fortin is working with the College of Music on a new series of commissioned works that take advantage of the Broad’s unusual acoustics and weird spaces, whether it’s tubas in the stairwell or Theremins under glass, leaving Mozart and Miles Davis to the refurbished Cook Recital Hall and Fairchild Theatre.

Ashlee Busch, a graduate student and instructor in electronic music composition at MSU, already worked with Fortin in to put together a similar concert series, Sound Escapes, spring 2013. Some of the music was paired with streaming videos, live dance and even real time painting.

“Concerts at art museums are a much more inclusive sensory experience,” Busch said. “You don’t have to worry about the social restrictions that are placed on you in a ‘normal’ musical experience.”

Busch’s next project at the Broad is a “micro-works” concert of about 60 oneminute-long pieces inspired directly by the museum’s architecture.

“The building is incredibly beautiful, and there’s so much intricacy and detail in the construction, that we thought it would be fantastic as inspiration for creating new music,” Busch said.

Any college composition student in Michigan will be invited. The composers will be given time to visit the building, look it over, and even record ambient sounds in the galleries they might use in their electro-acoustic compositions.

The Broad’s hard acoustics were just right for the hypnotic drones and overtones of New York-based electric guitar duet Dither on March 15.

Dither has a lot of New York cred, having worked with avant-garde musicians like Elliott Sharp, John Zorn and Fred Frith, but East Lansing greeted them with a space unlike any in the Big Apple and an enthusiastic audience.

Fortin has an eclectic feel for music, having been a musician herself for almost 25 years. She’s been involved in several rock groups. One of them, Excuses for Skipping, was together for about six years, touring up and down the West Coast and playing Austin’s South by Southwest festival.

“It was a total love affair with shoe-gaze music, an homage to the band Ride, but it later became a post-punk thing,” she said. “It became its own thing, just by virtue of the members being open and creative people.”

She also played in a band called Aerosol Species and a punk unit called Dyke van Dick.

Her life path prepared her to take the Broad’s programming in many of directions. She grew up in Massachusetts, studied anthropology in college, decided to check out the West Coast and ended up staying there 22 years. Along the way, she went to Mexico and wrote a screenplay called “The Gorgeous Alcoholic” she still would like to develop.

“I just wanted to travel and write,” she said. Back in San Francisco, she worked at a bookstore 10 years and became an editor at Lonely Planet guidebooks. She ended up at SF MOMA through sheer pluck.

“My unemployment ran out, and I just decided I needed to get a job,” she said. She started sending resumes to places she thought would be “amazing to work at.” SF MOMA hired her.

“I was lucky. They liked me. It was a great run there for me.” Fortin was at SF MOMA for two years when Alison Gass came on board as curator.

She finds that people in Lansing frequently make incorrect assumptions about her.

“People always ask me if I’m experiencing culture shock, coming here from San Francisco, and in a way, I don’t like that question,” she said.

“It would mean that I’d never known anything else but San Francisco.

Obviously, there is a cultural difference, but people are people everywhere.”

She grew up in North Adams, Mass., a working-class town, where she dreamed of being a stunt woman and a pirate.

“Even in San Francisco, I still had North Adams in my blood,” she said.

“There are obvious differences between Lansing and San Francisco, but we love it here and we’re having a good time.”

Fortin is keeping her hand in as a musician by playing drums for the roots-folk-rock assembly Lansing Unionized Vaudeville Spectacle.

One of her goals was to make it to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before her first year in the state was over, and she made it when the group trundled across the U.P. this summer.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. The band bus, loaded down with 15 musicians, cut a wide swath through the U.P., including the historic Calumet Opera House, the Vista Theater in Negaunee, a lot of breweries that paid them in beer. They made it half way up the remote Keweenaw Peninsula.

“We wanted to go to Agate Beach, but we weren’t sure if we would be able to turn the bus around,” she said.

The Keweenaw’s fabled Jam Pot, where an enclave of monks make homemade delicacies, gave Fortin the idea for a different kind of jam session.

“Maybe we can bring the St. John’s monks to the Broad Museum so they can make jam for us,” she said. She was smiling, but she was probably dead serious.

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Using the facilities

Stephanie Kribs helps people navigate the Broad — and use the washroom

Never mind the geometry of light, the relationship between memory and time or transitions in contemporary society. Among the most common queries heard at the Broad Museum is: How do you work the bathroom sink?

Student guide Kiran Webster considers any question, even that one, to be a teachable moment.

As it happens, clean design and clean hands are compatible at the Broad. Messy protrusions like faucets and soap dispensers are hidden under mirrors, activated by hand movements.

“Zaha Hadid’s team didn’t leave anything out, and that includes the bathrooms,” Webster said. “It’s a learning experience for everyone when it comes to working and visiting a building like this.”

On a recent football Saturday at MSU, facilities director Stephanie Kribs watched people filter in to the museum. “They’re looking for the restrooms,” she said. Apparently, there’s a certain look.

Kribs is used to all kinds of interactions with the public. It’s her job to track traffic patterns, make people happy and tweak whatever needs tweaking.

“We see a lot of families that have never brought their kids to a museum,” she said. “We don’t want it to feel like a stuffy museum where everyone has to whisper.”

A jovial man walked into the education wing and wandered into “Less Still,” a mes merizing kinetic installation by artist Lisa Walcott. He watched a set of eight orange racquetballs quietly rise and fall, sometimes hitting the floor with a soft “pwuk.”

“This is what drugs are all about,” he said. “They took a trip, never left the room and came up with this.”

The jovial man looked about 40, hailed from Grand Rapids and wore a jacket emblazoned with prison mug shots of famous people, including Jim Morrison.

It was a matter of time before he started to sound off about the shape of the building.

“You know the vehicle from ‘Star Wars I’” — he corrected himself — “’Star Wars III,’ that drives through the desert and steals the robots?’” (Sandcrawler, right?) “Yeah,” Kribs said. “There are a lot of analogies about the building.”

“In Grand Rapids, creativity is really frowned upon,” the man went on. “That’s my purgatory.”

Kribs took the Fifth Amendment on Grand Rapids and kept on smiling.

She grew up in Bath, which she didn’t consider purgatory, got a degree in environmental science and economics at MSU, and never thought she’d end up at an art museum.

After working at the Wharton Center as an usher, she ended up in the front office when a job opened up at the Broad.

At that time, it was known as that “spaceship” taking shape on Grand River Avenue.

“I felt the hostility in the community before I started working here,” Kribs said. “When I first came on, I still heard it: ‘I wouldn’t work in the ugliest building on campus.’ But I didn’t hear it nearly as much once the building was open to the public.”

Her staff is trained to recognize bewil derment and hesitation.

“Once they get into the building, they’re amazed and sometimes they don’t know what to do,” she said.

Kribs has learned to quickly identify recurring types of visitors. Architecture connoisseurs are easy to spot.

“They take one step in and they start looking at the concrete,” Kribs said. “They’ve been waiting to get in the door and scrutinize everything.”

Seasoned museum-goers walk straight up to the desk, ask for a map and ask how much admission is. (It’s free.)

Other people just wander in. “That’s what we want to increase,” Kribs said. “As many people as we can get into the door for any reason, to go to the bathroom, get a cup of coffee, the better.”

Once people come in, for whatever reason, their curiosity is usually piqued. Kribs had the same experience. “When I first came inside, it was a ‘wow’ moment because it’s completely different inside than outside,” she said.

It’s not surprising that the high concepts behind the Broad’s design don’t always translate to practical reality. Kribs explained that the museum was intentionally placed with its west entrance facing toward the center of campus and the east entrance facing Grand River, to suck the community in.

“It’s great conceptually, but it’s not actually the way people move through this area of campus,” she said. The west entrance gets much more traffic than the east entrance. “No one really walks down Grand River from that direction,” Kribs explained. On some days, Kribs parks the humblest of devices — a moveable sandwich board — on campus to direct people to events at the most conspicuous structure in the state.

Staffers on the floor get plenty of comments from patrons. Broad Museum security officer Marcus Bradley finds that people either love or hate the art, with little in between.

“They say, ‘That’s not art.’ A lot of the stuff, people don’t like,” he said. “Some of it they do. But that’s what art is. It just depends on how you look at it.”

Kribs would rather hear a complaint than get a blank look.

“Contemporary art can be a little intimidating,” she said. “But everyone can get something out of it, whether or not it’s the same thing thats written in the wall text or the exact thing the artist spoke about at a lecture.”

I left Kribs at the reception desk and wandered off for a while. The next time I walked by the desk, a man in an alumnus-ish sweater was approaching a student guide. The woman he was with looked a bit mortified. “Frank, come on,” she implored, but he was determined to speak up.

“How are you supposed to find the soap?” he demanded.