Dec. 22 2010 12:00 AM

Meet Michael Rush, the new founding director of MSU’s Broad Art Museum



Only a certain kind of museum curator would float surrealist dreamscapes on the walls, turn the gallery lights off, give you a flashlight and let you explore.

Michael Rush, the newly minted founding director of Michigan State University’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, did just that at Brandeis University’s Rose Museum, where he was director from 2005 until 2009.

Turning scary into fun is a specialty for Rush, and he’s about to do it on a grand scale. By spring of 2012, when the Broad Museum is finished, the former Jesuit priest, theater experimenter and fervid modern art ambassador will have one of the world’s most intriguing spaces in which to run amok.

“It’s the biggest opportunity in contemporary art in the United States right now,” Rush said. “The next year of my life is going to be amazing. The last few days have been amazing.”

After a whirlwind rush of meetings and greetings at MSU last week, Rush declared that there’s simply no precedent in the United States for the Broad Museum — a new space for contemporary art, on a college campus, in a stunning polygon of stainless steel plates designed by ultramodern architect Zaha Hadid.

“Situations are usually challenging in the way you get bombarded with problems,” he said. “Here I’m bombarded with possibilities.”

Rush knows that contemporary art is scary to many people.

In lectures, in books, on podcasts or in person, he likes to break down the barriers.

“I talk in real terms, not in gobbledygook,” he said. “I really believe that contemporary art has a lot to say to a broad spectrum of people.”

People expect contemporary art to be challenging, even confrontational, but Rush doesn’t shy from dropping what calls “the ‘b’ word.”

“I’m totally into beauty,” he said. “But what I mean by beauty is a pretty expansive idea. I can find a neon sculpture by Joseph Kosuth with quotes from Freud and Wittgenstein beautiful. They really turn me on.”

Rush understands the resistance contemporary art provokes. He looks genuinely ready, if not eager, to explain why your kid couldn’t have painted this mess, to the umpteenth skeptic.

“My background is not in the art world,” he said. “I don’t come from some thing where people enjoy the exclusion of it. I like the popular.”

But “popular,” to Rush, doesn’t mean appealing to popular taste. “I mean presenting things that I feel — we feel — are important and explaining why.”

The exhibits Rush curated at Rose were anything but passive. His 2006 Rose Gallery exhibition of video art blended performance and surveillance videos to blur the line between creator, viewer and voyeur. For a 2008 exhibit on surrealism, he turned the lights off, strewed the floor with (artificial) leaves, and left visitors to navigate weird dream canvases by Salvador Dali and his ilk with a flashlight.

He also likes to mix time periods. The surrealist show at Rose included art from 1928 to 2009.

“I’m interested in expanding the notion of what a contemporary exhibit means,” he said.

At the Broad Museum, Rush said, he might provide context to a contemporary work by hanging a Rembrandt print borrowed from the Detroit Institute of Arts.

After going over plans with architects and MSU officials last week, Rush was delighted to learn that the Broad Museum will have 70 percent gallery space, exceeding the 60 percent required by major donor Eli Broad.

Furthermore, despite architect Zaha Hadid’s crazy angles, Rush found the galleries “big and art-friendly.”

His first job, he said, will be among the most important.

“The opening exhibition is going to be really crucial,” he said. “The challenge is to get art that matches the ambition of the building.”

The museum will concentrate on hosting temporary exhibits rather than buying up a pricey permanent collection.

But Rush’s plans for the Broad Museum reach beyond exhibitions.

“I want this to be a real hub for the public and the university, where we provide events, people create events, and use us,” he said. “There’s something like 144 arts organizations here. When you have a space as great as this, you use it. And wait till you see it!”

The twists and turns that brought Rush to MSU last week border on the surreal, but he’s happy to give you a flashlight and walk you through.

“I’ve always tried to put the threads together myself,” he said.

In the 1970s, Rush was a Jesuit priest, and his eyes still flash with Jesuitical fire when he prosyletizes about art.

Jesuits have a very strong history with the visual arts, and they are
fundamentally educators,” he said. “I imbibed that in my 15-year

Rush left the Jesuit order, he got a doctorate in psychology from
Harvard and gravitated to theater. In the 1980s, he dabbled in TV,
popping up in “Law and Order” and “Spencer: For Hire.”

came to the visual arts through the back door of his experimental
theater in Connecticut, where he created theater pieces based on Marcel
Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and Jasper Johns.

“It seemed that I was heading in this direction,” he said. “The threads, to me, are pretty clear.”

There might have been too much theater in Rush’s most recent job.

January 2009, Brandeis University administrators decided to sell off
the Rose Museum’s $350 million art collection to meet a budget
shortfall. As director, Rose led a wave of protest, and the plan was
scrapped — at least for now — but Rush’s contract was not renewed.

Rose, Rush romped through a rich collection full of Picassos, de
Koonings, Lichtensteins and other treasures. This year, he guest-curated
a wild exhibit at Massacusetts Institute of Technology called “Virtuoso
Illusion: Cross-Dressing and the New Media Avant Garde.”

In January, he’ll move from his apartment on Manhattan’s Times Square to Spartan country.

about scary. From now on, if Rush craves a conversation with a Cy
Twombly fan, or corned beef after 3 a.m., he’ll probably have to make
both things happen by himself. After Boston and New York, can Lansing
hope to keep him amused?

“Are you kidding?” he said. “There’s no opportunity like this in the world right now.”