What’s the ‘big idea,’ anyway?

By |2007-11-22T09:00:00-05:00November 22nd, 2007|Entertainment|

By Michael H. Margolin

“It’s been a long six and one half years,” Graham W. J. Beal, director, president and CEO of the Detroit Institute of Arts, told the audience of press that gathered on Nov. 12. It was one of many groups invited to see the rehabbed DIA before its grand public opening on Nov. 23. The day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest day of the year, the doors will be open from 10 a.m. until Saturday, Nov. 24 at 6 p.m. – 32 consecutive hours later – with no admission fee.
Standing in front of the six-foot-high tripartite sign in the Great Hall that spells ART – its hundreds of bulbs glowed for the grand opening gala two days earlier – Beal spoke with confidence, authority and pride about the building and the cutting-edge exhibition concepts.
At a cost of some $158 million, the DIA is more user-friendly, with direct north-south corridors allowing visitors to move freely among and between galleries on each of the three floors. Beal joked about the former space, in which a visitor would start in the south wing with directions to the “red carpet area” – where they could get another set of directions to the north wing.
Adding to his remarks was David W. Penney, vice president of exhibitions and collections strategies, who was the project leader in what he called “re-creating the museum.” Famed architect Michael Graves, associated with the museum for about 20 years, led his firm in the intensive redesign – “harmonizing the building,” said Penney.
Paul Cret’s glorious design, classic and elegant, had served the aesthetic taste of the 20th century leadership that built the museum: its director, Paul Valentiner, and the great patrons Edsel and Eleanor Ford. Now, Cret’s central building and adjacent wings are part of a unified whole of symmetrical marble wings on the north, south and east which are logical, modern extensions in the spirit of the original.
Heating, air conditioning, lighting and myriad infrastructure elements have been incorporated into the design; most guests will be unaware of them. Comfort and ease will permit spending leisure time looking at and experiencing art rather than fighting inadequate way-finding and gerrymandered gallery space. There are no changes to the treasured Rivera Court.
Despite the great challenge inherent in keeping the museum open for six of those six and one-half years, Beal was drawn to Detroit in 1999 from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for another reason: “The chance to re-hang one of the world’s great collections,” Beal told the audience.
Speaking in lightly-accented British English, Beal spoke of the origins of the museum and the kind of collection that began in Europe and was introduced here 100 years ago.
“The way we presented art was to tell the story of art – of stylistic change … in fact, a story about art. In the last few years, many (art experts) have been rethinking how to present art,” he said.
Nancy Jones, curator of education at the DIA – the central department to foster and promote a new way of viewing art – had said a few days earlier, “(A visitor expert) came up with ‘The Big Idea’ for special exhibitions.”
This is a clustering of works around a cause-and-effect idea, rather than art history concepts. “The idea,” said Jones, “is to get people to look” at the objects. “Looking at art is a skill, not something that comes naturally.”
The Big Idea is the bridge between the viewer and the art. In one gallery, Otto Dix’s 20th century self-portrait is matched with the 16th century “Portrait of a Man” that inspired it. Previously, the two works would have been separated by the demands of an historical approach – showing works by time period.
In one of the many high-tech installations Jones pointed out, a large screen about 3-by-5 feet featured a silhouetted man from ancient Greece eating grapes; a serving person brings wine and water, mixing and serving it. To the right and left of the display are the actual objects that, when seen in the animation, are lit up. The amphora is called a drinking cup.
High- and low-tech devices clearly stand out in the galleries, and on one of the preview days, children were happily following the “Eye Spy” tablets that clued them into an object in a painting, giving a hands-on visual. In addition, audio tours that have become de rigueur for special exhibitions are now available for touring objects within the regular displays – in English, Spanish and Japanese.
“Works of art are presented through themes that express common experiences,” Beal pointed out to the press. One of the truly unique installations is called “Splendor by the Hour.” Set in France in the 18th century, it depicts a day in the life of a member of the aristocracy, beginning with a lavish, exquisite set of objects in silver used by a French noblewoman to embellish herself; passing through a French salon there is music of the period playing softly in the background. In one section, there is an extraordinary animation in which a four-course meal is shown being served and eaten while the museum visitor sits at the table – as if an 18th century guest. The centerpiece on the table in the film is a magnificent object in a nearby glass case. “Nowhere in the … French galleries,” said Beal, “do we have the word ‘Baroque.'”
Penney told of the teams of curators, educators and conservators who had to pool their knowledge – and, in many cases, give up certain professional territory – to join in the concept of The Big Idea. They worked and produced as a team, then turned their thoughts over to professional writers. Lay persons served as consultants on visitor panels, reviewed the emerging ideas and lent their perceptions as museum guests. Designers of all stripes were involved not only in signage, but in how to make viewing friendlier: Pictures now are hung three inches lower. The installation that began 14 months ago ended as recently as Thursday, Nov. 8. (A few galleries will not be open this year.)
“We don’t have the problem of being a tourist museum,” said Beal, somewhat ruefully, like the juggernauts such as the Louvre (in Paris) or The British Museum. “It also means the luxury of making radical changes without offending international customers. The challenge was to reach out to our museum’s constituency in a way to maximize attendance and provide a learning experience with art.”
Penney, addressing the press, added, “As far as I know, no other museum of our size has attempted this before – the complete reinstallation of (the) collection. The project was informed from the start by the depth of knowledge of the collection.”
The “big ideas” can only work when the collection is deep and wide enough to serve them. Detroit has both – and that is now becoming public knowledge.

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.