Jan. 10 2019 09:48 AM

'Very difficult decision;' search begins immediately

Marc-Olivier Wahler, the soft-spoken, slyly subversive director of MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, has stepped down.

A serious illness in Wahler’s family has kept his attention in recent months, leading to rumors of his departure as early as last fall. His last official day was Jan. 3.

Wahler plans to stay in Paris, where his wife is awaiting a liver transplant, for the foreseeable future.

“I took a leave, but we don’t have the transplant yet, so I need to stay here,” he said. “It was a very difficult decision.”

The museum’s board of advisers will meet Thursday to begin the process of picking a new director.

Wahler came to the Broad in July 2016, succeeding Broad Museum founding director Michael Rush, who died in March 2015.

“I’ll miss so many things,” Wahler said.

“The staff is fantastic, and I want to praise them all. I even love the Broad cafeteria. You get a good cup there.”

Wahler brought a feeling of serious play to the Broad. He ran a full program of about 30 shows a year at the Broad, from regional and national to international artists.

He singled out “The Hidden World,” a wild collection of multi-media work by Michigan artists and punk rockers Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, as a highlight of his tenure.

“I was really happy because it was about Michigan,” Wahler said. “Going back to the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, having all these people that were close to Mike and Jim coming to the museum, brought all this energy.

Michigan is a very special place.”

ArtForum called the Shaw exhibit “a breathtaking and expansive journey through the myths and beliefs of America.”

Wahler often called contemporary art “mental hygiene,” a way to cut through media filters and established ruts of thinking.

He hit the ground running with his first major exhibit, “The Transported Man,” a mischievous riff on Wahler’s self-styled magician persona. He gave his opening talk for the show from the belly of a live alligator, via video trickery.

At the Broad, as in his 2006-2012 gig as director of Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Wahler loved to duck under the velvet rope dividing high and low culture.

He often compared art to a magic trick — a painting, picture or sculpture appears, then disappears as a physical object, and reappears as “art.”

Taking over the entire museum for several weeks, “The Transported Man” ran the gamut from a jaw-dropping upside-down, lifesized elephant sculpture by Daniel Firman to a tent full of real, flashing fireflies. In a typical Wahler touch, a bug zapper was included in the exhibit, along with the flies.

While at the Broad, Wahler jumped at the chance to work with MSU artists, scientists and researchers in every field from music to astronomy, education, agriculture, African studies and dozens of other fields.

“That was one of my main motivations in coming to East Lansing,” he said. “It took a year and a half to really get to know the people, the projects that were possible, and we were starting some amazing projects. That’s what I’ll miss, because that’s unique.”

Seeking to soften the museum’s bunkered appearance and overcome community skepticism toward the Broad, Wahler got a $1 million grant to jump over Grand River Avenue and start the ArtLab, a venue for community activities, outreach and temporary exhibits.

The ArtLab only launched in the fall, but Wahler said early feedback has been encouraging, as people wander in off the street and find out what’s going on.

“I’m convinced that this space will change the cultural landscape in Lansing,” he said. “For those who think contemporary art is hard to accept, or think it’s not for them, having a building that looks like a shark that will eat you is a little intimidating.”

Wahler is not making any professional plans for now, but he has been asked to participate in several projects, including an arts center due to open in Paris in 2021. “People are calling me to curate shows, but I don’t want to make any plans until September,” he said.

True to form, “The Transported Man” is hanging on to his sense of humor, even in trying times.

“Maybe this is part of my first performance at the Broad, when I was swallowed by an alligator,” he said. “I always reappear somewhere, and that’s the trick of magic.”