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Zdddrinnggggg! You could walk into the MSU Broad Museum’s new space across Grand River Avenue, the Art Lab, with your eyes closed last week and still get the message loud and clear.
After the lab’s ribbon cutting Thursday, a white-gloved docent squeezed the flexible columns of sculptor Harry Bertoia’s beryllium chimes — a signature piece of the old Kresge Art Museum, supplanted in 2012 by the Broad. She gently released her grip and let the metallic echoes tintinnabulate around the room.
The museum’s largely unseen “historic collection” of 8,000 works of art from past centuries and far-flung cultures, or at least a fraction of it, is back.
The sound was music to the ears of art lovers who miss the Kresge, but the Broad’s Art Lab will not be a static exhibition space where the same objects will gather dust indefinitely.
In 1992, multiethnic American artist Fred Wilson jolted the museum world by mixing elegant 19th-century objects (fine tableware, fancy chairs and the like) with slave chains and whipping posts at the Maryland Historical Society museum.
Wilson’s “Mining the Museum” set a standard for re-casting established collections in a new light. His “curatorial interventions” inspired the inaugural exhibit at MSU’s Art Lab — a lively bouquet of 30 works from the historic collection, curated by 11 art students with a wide variety of tastes, backgrounds and interests.
“The collection has to be contemporary, even if it’s from the Medieval or Renaissance period,” Broad Museum director Marc-Olivier Wahler said. “The challenge is to show it so it speaks to us.”
Azya Moore, a studio art major with a minor in museum studies, chose the most arresting piece in the room — a semi-abstract fantasia of female anatomy, dispersed into a disturbing and beautiful array of colors and shapes on a huge canvas that dominates the rear wall of the exhibit.
Moore chose American Abstract Expressionist Grace Hartigan’s “Interrelations” to make a strong statement about the ongoing struggles of female artists.
“She went by the name George for much of her career to avoid discrimination,” Moore said.
Moore also chose a richly ornamented sculpture that rises like a tower of humanity over the room, Yoruba master carver Obembe Alaye’s “Veranda Post: Equestrian and Female Caryatid.”
“I wanted an African piece of artwork to be within a place with other artworks, as fine art,” Moore said. “Go to certain museums and it might be sectioned off as African art, but it doesn’t need to be categorized. It can stand across from a painting, or among other sculptures, and be looked at as the same.”
Moore also chose an evocative piece of sculpture — a battered lunchbox inside of a birdcage — by Detroit artist Tyree Guyton, famous for his Heidelberg Project.
“His work is relevant to today,” Moore said. “Being a black man in America, he went off to war, fighting for rights he didn’t have in his own country. It speaks to what is going on now, even though it was made so long ago.”
Choosing the art, and writing the texts on the wall next to them, was a challenge for Moore and the other student curators. “Now you need to think about — how does someone who doesn’t know art relate to this?” Moore said. “You have to be mindful of writing shorter sentences while getting your idea across.”
The result is an exhibit that is accessible to people who wouldn’t know a curatorial intervention from a janitorial one.
Thanks to the fresh eyeballs and enthusiasm of students like Moore, walking through “Mining the Collection” feels less like a trying exercise in dodging jargon and more like having 11 interesting people grab you by the collar and say, “Look at this.”
Wahler was surprised at some of the art the students chose.
“They chose some works I didn’t even know,” he said. “You have 8,000 objects, so even most of what I have seen, I have seen in pictures, because everything is crated. An exhibition is very important because it allows us to go deep in our collection.”
Although a spirit of experimentation permeates the Art Lab, some of its goals are more straightforward. The crating of the Kresge collection in 2012 left a residue of bad feeling in the community and didn’t help the Broad’s controversial building and contemporary art mission go down any easier with some folks in the art community’s old guard.
Wahler said he hoped the new space “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, which I understand. If I were in that situation — you donate works to a museum and then suddenly your own museum doesn’t physically exist.”
Wahler also hopes that by infiltrating the commercial strip along Grand River across from the Broad Museum, the lab will draw more people into the orbit of art, and across the street, into the museum itself.
“If we’re going to be a bridge from the campus to the community, we need the other end of the bridge,” he said. “The museum can be intimidating to some people, so what we really want is for people to enter this new space, almost randomly. ‘Oh, there’s a wine bar here? An art workshop? Great.’”
While there's no wine bar yet, there's one in the works.
The Broad Museum itself, positioned on the north edge of campus, was supposed to be that bridge, but the hermetic stainless steel trapezoid has proven to be more alluring to international architecture tourists than people walking down the street. The storefront accessibility of Art Lab may change some of that. Besides, where else can you grab some Taco Bell food and check out an ancient Greek kylix on the same block?
“Even if they are intimidated by contemporary art — which I totally understand — they can see a mummy case from the ninth century B.C., a fantastic work from the 20th century, and then cross the street,” Wahler said, breaking into an impish grin.
“Just be careful walking across.”