Surprise me: Art collector makes $7.5 million gift to MSU Broad Art Museum


It’s a big month for the MSU Broad Art Museum. On Oct. 30, two weeks before opening a new lower level gallery that will display pieces from the museum’s permanent collection, the Broad announced it received a $7.5 million gift from Detroit-area business owner and art collector Alan Ross, chairman of the Broad’s board of advisers, and his spouse, Rebecca.

The gift, earmarked for exhibitions, builds on a $1 million endowment made by the couple in 2014.

“The largest challenge a museum has is funding of exhibitions,” Ross said in a phone interview Friday. “It’s expensive to bring artwork from all over the world. It’s not just the art. You have to ship it, insure it — a lot of expenses people have no idea are involved. We wanted to take that variable out of the equation.”

Ross said the gift comes with no restrictions or pressure to push exhibitions in any particular direction.

“I don’t want to tell them what to do,” he said. “I want them to use their creative juices to come up with whatever they want to come up with. Surprise me.”

The Broad’s bustling, airy education wing was named the Alan and Rebecca Ross Education Wing in their honor.

Ross, a 1977 graduate of MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, has a longstanding interest in design, going back to the posters on his walls as a student, but he declined to declare himself an artist.

“I’m a pretty handy person, and I know my way around a shop, and I do make pieces, but I’m not formally trained,” he said. “I’m what you call an outsider.”

He owns Gallagher Fire Equipment, a fire suppression and fire alarm contractor based in Livonia. He and Rebecca met while working at a startup tech venture in Silicon Valley and got engaged in 1986. After living in New York for several years, they returned to Detroit, Alan’s hometown, in 1990 and married a year later.

Their house is full of sculptures, paintings, drawings and prints collected from all over the world.

 “The common thread in our collection is design,” he said.

Their collection ranges from contemporary, well-known artists to emerging younger artists “who aren’t that well-known, but their pieces are phenomenal.”

Predictably, he doesn’t like to play favorites.

“When people ask me what my favorite piece of art is, I always say it’s the last piece I bought,” he said.

When pressed, he praised the work of Chris Burden, an American artist who died in 2015 and ran the gamut from provocative performance art in his younger years to large-scaled, highly intricate sculptures, often with thousands of moving parts. (Check out a brief film of Burden’s “Metropolis II” on his Wikipedia page.)

“He has some very large scale pieces, and we really enjoy them,” Ross said.

Ross has been involved with the Broad Museum since 2014, most recently as chairman of its board of advisers.

“We’re very happy with the Broad,” Ross said. “Its impact on the community is apparent. Everyone that visits leaves with something.”

He said the Broad has three goals: serve the students, be available for the faculty to use for education, and engage the community.

“There’s been a lot of emphasis, a lot of talk and a lot of movement on that third goal,” he said. “We’re actually doing those things.”

Ross recently got a sneak peek at the CORE, the Broad’s new showcase for its permanent collection, including the trove of historic art inherited from the Broad’s predecessor, the Kresge Art Museum.

“Walking around, seeing those paintings, those sculptures, those works of art, up close and personal, in an open space where you talk and have discussions — it seems very, very cozy and comfortable,” he said. He was impressed by the designers’ skill at harmonizing the new space with the late architect Zaha Hadid’s original design.

“I think Zaha would love this,” he said. “She would be very pleased.”

He predicted that technology will expand the CORE’s reach and its modular, flexible design will enable curators to refresh the space on a regular basis.

“It’s constantly evolving,” he said. “We’re talking about new ways of doing things, growing it beyond that, changing the displays to give people interest when they come back again and again.”

This fall, the Broad has embarked on a search for a new director, but Ross is confident that with a renewed emphasis on community engagement and exhibits with local ties, along with the CORE, the museum is moving in the right direction.

“We want the Broad to have the exhibitions they want, when they want it, and not have to worry about how it was going to be paid for,” he said. “We believe our gift will accomplish that.”


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