Jewel boxes in the dark

MSU’s Broad Art Museum brings back trove of historic art


In natural objects like apples and planets, the core comes first. The MSU Broad Art Museum, an unnatural object if ever there was one, has a CORE — Center for Object Research and Engagement — that defies the laws of time and space.

This Friday, some 300 objects from the Broad’s permanent collection, including art inherited from its predecessor, the Kresge Art Museum, will become available for study and viewing by the public.

Unlike an apple core, the Broad’s CORE is a high-tech retro-fit, the ultimate cool basement, deftly slipped under the floor more than 10 years after the museum opened its doors.

Last week, the space was still unfinished, but much of the art was already in place.

Broad Museum interim director Steven Bridges picked his way through the jumble of workers, crates and tools, including about 20 carpenters’ levels. There will be no crookedly hung art here.

It’s been more than 10 years since MSU’s Kresge Art Museum was supplanted by the Broad, and its historic collection of some 7,500 artworks was relegated largely to storage, angering and disappointing many art lovers, donors and Kresge supporters. (The Broad’s collection, building on the Kresge’s, now numbers close to 10,000 works.)

Bridges and his staff chose the acronym CORE on purpose. Above ground, the Broad is still committed to exhibiting contemporary art, but the newly finished space puts the core — the museum’s permanent collection of art — back into the apple, complementing and contrasting with architect Zaha Hadid’s angular design so harmoniously that many visitors will assume it was there from Year One.

The central wall of the MSU Broad’s Center for Object Research and Engagement, or CORE, is home to some of the most beloved artworks from the Kresge Art Museum days, including “The Vision of St. Anthony,” by Spanish master Francisco de Zurburán, visible at center of wall, and Hananiah Harari’s “Birth of Venus,” to the right of the Zurburán.
The central wall of the MSU Broad’s Center for Object Research and Engagement, or CORE, is home to some of the most beloved artworks from the …

“It’s as if it’s always been here — or as it always should have been here,” Bridges said.

The CORE cost about $1.5 million, funded by a mix of private donations, including local donors, the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Broad’s operating funds.

Some 100 designers and builders, most of them from various MSU workshops and departments, used every available inch to carve out a seamless, integrated roomful of wonders out of 4,500 square feet of mundane office space, a conference area, existing exhibit space and other odd corners.

Almost everything down here is custom made, from the angled display cases to dimmable LED strips that eliminate shadows on the artwork.

To demonstrate the latter, the Broad Museum’s chief preparator, Brian Kirschensteiner, cut the daytime working lights and plunged the space into semi-darkness.

A silent riot of colors and shapes animated the walls. The space acquired an uncanny ambiance, somewhere between a Lascaux cave painting and the hull of a starship carrying hundreds of diverse artifacts from a doomed Earth.

“There’s a lot of drama,” Kirschensteiner said. “These are like precious jewel boxes.”


Serpent and the egg

The central wall of the CORE is a relentless panorama of blue-chip art, including one of the collection’s crown jewels, “The Vision of St. Anthony,” by Spanish master Francisco de Zurburán.

As of last week, a cardboard placeholder with “DALI” scrawled on it took the place of the Broad’s enigmatic Salvador Dali canvas, “Remorse, or Sphinx Embedded In the Sand.” Another prize work of art, a boxed assemblage by American artist Joseph Cornell, was still in storage, represented by a stunt double (a makeshift box with a printed likeness).

Carpenters’ levels were all over the place as workers assembled display walls and cases and began to hang art at the MSU Broad’s CORE last week.
Carpenters’ levels were all over the place as workers assembled display walls and cases and began to hang art at the MSU Broad’s CORE last week.

But Zurburán’s St. Anthony was in the house. His upturned visage seemed to follow MSU art student Jesse Amburgey as he climbed a ladder to adjust the lights.

The dark-hued, devotional portrait, dating from about 1630, was the first painting to enter the Kresge collection, in 1959. (The earliest, pre-Kresge works in the Broad’s permanent collection date to the mid-1940s.) In the late 1980s, former Kresge Art Museum director Susan Bandes secured a grant to conserve the masterpiece — a job that took eight months.

St. Anthony needed the patience of a saint to sit out the last 10 years.

An informative wall display at the CORE tells much of the story. The Broad Museum itself evolved from a plan to exhibit many of the artworks now ensconced in the CORE. In 2003, a group called the Friends of Kresge unveiled plans to quadruple Kresge Art Museum’s space and renovate the building, using privately donated funds, with the goal of doing justice to collection.

“If the exhibit can be faulted, it’s for an extra-artistic reason — the inadequacy of the exhibition galleries,” art critic Roger Green said in 2003. “The burgeoning art collection deserves a proper home.”

The CORE’s history wall acknowledges two Kresge docents, David and Ruth Greenbaum, who spearheaded a support group for the Kresge, Better Art Museum, raising thousands of dollars with a plucky barrage of grass-roots fundraisers, from bake sales to art auctions. 

Bridges and his staff included multiple nods to their predecessors in the CORE, giving special props to Bandes, (Kresge director from 1986 to 2010, and curator April Kingsley.

“They had the greatest impact on the expansion of the collection, moving it up to 7,500 works by 2010,” Bridges said. (There were fewer than 300 objects in 1964, five years after Kresge opened.)

But the wall doesn’t capture the intensity of the drama that followed. The next part of the story is straight out of a mythological painting — of a serpent devouring its own egg.

The $12 million Kresge expansion plan was dwarfed in 2007 by the bombshell announcement that contemporary art collector Eli Broad, an MSU grad after whom the College of Business is named, would give $26 million (later beefed up to $28 million) for a whole new museum.

The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum’s emphasis on temporary exhibits of contemporary art, defined by the taste of its mega-donors, meant the Kresge collection would largely go into storage, leaving donors and art lovers baffled and St. Anthony alone in a crate, with his pious thoughts.

Chief Preparator Brian Kirschensteiner shows off a section of 3D printed art visitors will be able to touch.
Chief Preparator Brian Kirschensteiner shows off a section of 3D printed art visitors will be able to touch.

The Broad Museum’s first two directors, Michael Rush and Marc-Olivier Wahler, used works from the collection in creative but limited ways, usually to “contextualize” a work of contemporary art. It was clear to the museum’s third director, Mónica Ramiírez-Montagut, that a more comprehensive solution might help tamp the lingering ill will in the community and tap the collection’s potential to bring people to the Broad.

As part of a broader strategy to engage the community with more localized exhibits and friendlier outreach, Ramiírez-Montagut announced in March 2022 that the historic collection would finally be displayed in a renovated lower level space.

“You’ll walk in and be surrounded by art,” Ramírez-Montagut said.


Venus mixtape

At the CORE, one thing leads to another, and quickly. With so many varied artworks to put on display, Bridges and his staff are playing in a virtually limitless sandbox.

“There are objects people might have a personal connection with, but if you come for that, you’ll be exposed to all this other stuff, too, and you might discover something you didn’t expect,” he said.

Among many other things, the wall offers the chance to scrutinize two Venuses, up close.

“Birth of Venus,” an eye-popping abstract canvas by 20th-century New York artist Hananiah Harari, hangs just inches away from “Black Venus,” by Margaret Burroughs, an African-American artis, writer and founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago.

They both show the Greek goddess of love emerging from her famous shell, with the usual entourage of cherubs, but the resemblance ends there.

The burning pink flesh tones of Harari’s Venus and the dark majesty of Burroughs’s vision are worlds apart. Both artworks cry out to be seen in person — the Harari, for its richly textured water and skin, the Burroughs, for the sharply etched, glimmering highlights that make the blackness even blacker.

To the left of St. Anthony is a gorgeous 18th-century Chinese scroll painting with a Buddhist theme.

At first glance, St. Anthony and the Chinese scroll couldn’t be more different, but to Bridges, they both share a “divinity coming from the heavens.”

With world-class stimulus like this, the urge to compare and contrast is addictive. To the left of the Chinese scroll is an Ethiopian wall hanging bursting with bright faces and zigzag patterns.  Never mind the finer points. What is this thing even made of?

“That’s the joy of the collection,” Bridges said. “There’s so much to discover here.”

He compared it to a mix tape.

“You get it for that one song, and they you listen to the others, and find several others that you love.”

The dramatically lit CORE will protect sensitive historic art from potentially harmful sunlight and offer eye relief from the bright, white galleries in the museum above, but visitors won’t forget where they are. The tilted angles of the display cases strictly obey the zig-zag rules of Zaha Hadid’s world.

“We wanted to create environments that stay true to Zaha Hadid’s vision for the space,” Bridges said.

Two of the display cases were nicknamed “the sevens” by the staff, because they are shaped like a slanted numeral 7.

MSU Broad Interim Director Steven Bridges inspects a replica of a signature work of art from the former Kresge Museum, Harry Bertoia’s beryllium chimes, fabricated at MSU’s metal shop. At the CORE, visitors will be able to touch and sound the replica at one of three “sensory stations,” while the original stays safely in a case.
MSU Broad Interim Director Steven Bridges inspects a replica of a signature work of art from the former Kresge Museum, Harry Bertoia’s beryllium …

Paintings, photographs and prints are hung on black wire mesh and faced with protective, aluminum-framed partitions with light, scratch-resistant, transparent polycarbonate instead of glass.

The artwork is hung “salon style,” densely stacked horizontally and vertically, to pack the maximum number of works into the space.

“I love a good salon hang,” Bridges said. “There’s a lot of joy in piecing it together.”

Architect Kevin Marshall of Michigan-based Integrated Design Solutions knows the angles of the MSU Broad better than anyone. Marshall was among many designers and contractors who worked on the Broad a decade ago and returned for the CORE. (Integrated Design Solutions was the architect of record for the MSU Broad, with Zaha Hadid as design architect.) Marshall has long championed the museum’s “unity of design” and kept the same principle in mind working on the CORE.

The Broad’s lighting designer, the aptly named Darko Banfic, also returned to work on the CORE, as did the original electrical contractor.

Kirschensteiner, the Broad’s chief exhibit preparator, estimated that in addition to the Broad’s staff, about 100 designers and builders, including 65 MSU-based technicians and workers, were involved in the project, from the metal and glass shops to electricians and other contractors.

Much of the hardware and technology used in the CORE, from nuts-and-bolts display equipment to high-tech “sensory stations,” is at the cutting edge of museum work, according to Kirschensteiner.

To make art sit flat, and hang flat, in display cases that fold like origami in the angular Hadid universe, designers had to invent hardware that’s never used before, down to the ingenious, modular fasteners that join the aluminum frames of the cases together at any angle needed.

“That’s the inside baseball, the really cool stuff,” Kirschensteiner said. “We could hang a cube of polycarbonate and aluminum off the ground. The sky’s the limit.”

“Now you’re giving me ideas,” Bridges shot back.


Sensory overload

The Broad’s CORE evolved well beyond the “open storage” concept since Ramírez-Montagut left the museum in 2022 to lead New York’s Parrish Art Museum,

“Of course, we want to pack in as much as we can, but we also want to create a space that allows people, class groups, to gather and have a pleasurable experience,” Bridges said.

Multiple digital layers of information will enable visitors to explore each item further on their phones or laptops by scanning a QR code.

What really gets Bridges excited are the CORE’s three “sensory stations” where visitors can touch, smell, listen to and otherwise engage with high-tech replicas of the art — a hint of bigger things to come, he predicted.

Among the Kresge’s most popular works was a set of chimes by 20th-century sound art sculptor Harry Bertoia, made of a metallic element beryllium. In Kresge days, docents used to put on white gloves and zzzinngg the chimes on request from patrons.

The chimes are now too fragile to zzinngg on a regular basis. (Beryllium is also toxic to breathe in.) The CORE will feature the original, under glass, with a working replica fabricated by the MSU metal shop at one of the sensory stations.

At another station, visitors will be able to heft a detailed replica of an ancient Chinese Ding ritual vessel. Vials of scent will reproduce the smell of the incense burned in the vessel centuries ago.

“So we have the range of senses — sight, touch, sound, smell,” Bridges said. So far, there’s nothing you can lick, but don’t rule it out.

The next phase is to plug the collection into the world of augmented reality, or AR. Kirschensteiner and his staff are working on a program that will enable visitors to “collect” art from the Broad by loading detailed 3D images on their phones.

He pulled a virtual art heist at his workstation by aiming his laptop at a table cluttered with tools and bits of material.

On the laptop screen, the ancient Ding vase appeared to rest on the table, in three dimensions, flawlessly accurate in appearance from every angle.

“You can go home, have dinner with your family, and tell them you collected a painting or a sculpture, throw them on your kitchen table and have fun with it in AR,” Kirschensteiner said. “With all of this coming together, we are at the forefront, in terms of what museums are doing.”


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