University of Michigan Museum of Art unveils results of $47 million project
Mar 23, 2009 By TAHREE LANE
ANN ARBOR - Bulletin to art fans: a beautiful new museum opens this week. It's well funded, amply staffed, and has strong contemporary, Asian, and African collections. Expect shows that push the limits. And it's free.
The University of Michigan Museum of Art, in the heart of Main Campus in Ann Arbor, opens with a 24-hour public celebration at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Three fresh exhibits are Museums in the 21st Century: Concepts, Projects, Buildings (with several scale models); Expressions of Vienna: Master Drawings by Klimt and Schiele from the Pulgram-McSparran Collection, and UMMA Projects: Walead Beshty (photography), the first in a series on global contemporary art.
The $47.9 million project ($41.9 million for construction, another $6 million for gallery-related costs), consists of a bright, new 53,000-square-foot building. It connects seamlessly to the lovingly restored Beaux-Arts building that has been the museum's modest (UM has an art museum?) home for decades.
Mop-haired and sporting socks striped blue, maroon, and fuschia, James Steward, museum director, realizes it's an awkward moment to relish this victory for the visual arts. After all, museums across the nation - Toledo and Detroit among them - are laying off staff and axing budgets. UMMA did not just meet its goal of raising $35 million; it got $62 million.
Indeed, when its largest corporate supporters - Ford, Pfizer, and Borders, whose gifts supplied 10 percent of the budget - disappeared, generous individuals appeared.
"We have produced many alumni who are very successful and are happy to give back," says Mr. Steward, who has shepherded the project from its 2001 inception. The well-funded ("well-resourced," in today's parlance) university's input: $8 million.
UM has been collecting art, mostly gifts, since the 1850s when it had a small gallery. Donors have fattened the collection to its current level of 19,000 objects.
"We're obliged to be more research-oriented, to be more boundary-crossing, to be more risk-oriented," he says. "If we do something edgy, offensive, people forgive us or expect it. That's how we test our values as a society."
UM's intellectual breadth - 120 doctoral programs - begs for art to stretch parameters. "Why wouldn't we want to take advantage of that to provide other ways to look at art? How can we approach art to make it come alive for a medical student, an engineering student, an economics student?"
To be museum-as-town-square, the facility has a 225-seat auditorium, a cafe (it has WiFi) open 8 a.m. to midnight daily, a store that emphasizes regional products, and classroom space.
A snazzy feature in the extended-hour zone is the grand-piano sized DialogTable that connects works of art to other fields. It uses gesture recognition: by holding a hand over the table and using a grasp gesture to select a piece of art, movies, music, artists, and historic info relating to the piece are presented.
The main entrance continues to be up the few stairs of the four-columned, sandstone Alumni Hall and into the gracious apse, a deep, open oblong ringed with columns and a balcony, and crowned with a vaulted skylight. Refreshingly simple, this quaint, 41,000-square-foot building is the right fit for the early European and American art it displays.
The museum expects to complement other regional museums.
Drop ceilings and interior elements added since 1907 were removed. The skylight was opened and sunny hallways were added, connecting to the new building named for Maxine and Stuart Frankel, the Michiganders who graduated from here in the 1960s and donated $10 million.
Pure 21st century, the Frankel wing is a landscape of white-oak flooring intersected by muted walls. Ceilings are high and paneled with narrow windows that are remotely screened when the sun's too strong for fragile objects.
"Daylight is a characteristic of Brad's work and a big reason why we chose him," Steward says, referring to architect Brad Cloepfil and his team at Allied Works Architecture of Portland, Ore. Natural light, he notes, helps reduce visitor fatigue.
Steward was hired in 1998 by then-UM President Lee Bollinger, who's married to artist Jean Magnano Bollinger and who wanted a larger museum.
"He had this view that the arts could be a meeting place. He said to me, 'Let's make the art museum like the Big House [UM's football stadium].'"
At the time, UMMA had 17 staff, a $1.7 million budget, and 70,000 annual visitors. But to convince donors the museum was both capable and deserving of expansion, Steward had to ramp up its visibility.
"I didn't want to do the field of dreams thing - build it and they would come." By 2004, the visitor count had nearly doubled. Staff has grown to almost 50, and it has a projected budget of $5.5 million to $6 million.
With three stories and a basement, the new wing's exterior is clad with Wisconsin limestone and steel. Sleek furniture and display cases were crafted in Michigan, and terrazzo-like flooring used in some areas was recycled. From a top-floor vantage, one has a bird's-eye view of art on levels below.
Galleries include contemporary (four medium-sized Picassos are just inside the entry), African, and Asian with a stunningly decked-out, life-sized Japanese warrior dating to 1615 to 1868.
On the ground level, a glass-walled gallery butts against a sidewalk traversed by thousands of students going to and from the central Diag. It will be hard to avoid the eye-popping art inside.
"New buildings," says Steward, "should declare themselves as new buildings."
Indeed, this one does.
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