In February 2011, I visited the campus of Michigan State University—my former employer. While there, I took the opportunity to check out the construction site for the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, which was destined to replace the Kresge Art Museum as MSU’s university art museum. This February—two years later—I had the opportunity to return, just three months after the Broad opened to the public. As someone who had played a (minor) part in the planning process for the Broad—and who has been using that experience to inform my work with the OSU Museum of Art—I was very excited to see the completed museum in person.
The transformation of the Kresge Museum into the Broad entailed several major changes, not least of which were an entirely new building (Kresge was housed in the Art department), and, as it transpired, an almost completely new staff. Moreover, where Kresge’s galleries had presented a comprehensive overview of the history of art, the Broad focuses on contemporary art, using objects from the Kresge collection as incidental, contextual counterpoints. The Broad is also an architecturally striking, contemporary building in its own right, designed by Zaha Hadid in her well-known postmodern style. Initially conceived as a “gateway” between the university campus and downtown East Lansing (which is right across the street), the Broad Museum certainly catches one’s eye when traversing that space.
The building has provoked a lot of local controversy, from the initial architect selection process right up until today—I’ll admit, in fact, that of all the people I’ve talked to about it, the only one whose overall reaction was positive was my companion the day of my visit, who had never been to the Kresge Museum or the Broad until that morning. Former students, along with colleagues and friends with whom I discussed the building, have more often been skeptical of the building’s lack of relationship to the rest of campus, both visually and in terms of its programming.
One major criticism throughout the building process has been the Broad Museum’s lack of concern for students and the academic curriculum as it focused on satisfying the demands of a notoriously unconventional donor. Certainly, the Broads’ names and even faces are prominent throughout the building’s public spaces. (Somewhat ironically, the hardest place to see them was actually on the entrance—we spent a couple of seconds trying to figure out if we were allowed to use these doors, before the light caught the building at the necessary angle!) But are students’ needs being served as enthusiastically? One area that concerned me was the study room at the Broad. Budget constraints had reduced the scope of the building, and several key spaces were downsized. In the case of the study room, the result is that only six to eight people can use the space at a time. I can say from experience that I never taught even an upper-division seminar in art history at MSU with fewer than eight students. The Broad’s solution has been to use space formerly occupied by the Kresge Museum, in the Art Department, as classroom space.
Although the Postal Plaza Gallery project is on a much smaller scale than the Broad Art Museum, we have faced similar challenges when it comes to meeting the diverse needs of donors, students, and community members. Early on in our own process, we decided to postpone development of the basement level, in order to allow for flexibility as the collection and programming continued to experience exponential growth, through gifts of art and increased faculty involvement from across OSU. Temporarily giving up the basement, however, meant losing our dedicated classroom and print study room space—so the OSUMA staff worked with our architects (Elliott and Associates) to create a flexible classroom and study space in Collections Storage. Our new vision, currently being implemented, is a Research Library and Study Center that will house our permanent art collection, our research library, and be able to host classes of up to 15-20 students at a time. I believe that allowing students and faculty access to the permanent collection for teaching and learning purposes is a critical part of our mission, and that providing that experience on-site at the Postal Plaza Gallery—embedded in the larger activities of the OSUMA—is a significant part of that experience.
As frequent readers of our blog know well, we already engage students and faculty from across campus with our collection. Interior Design Professor Paulette Hebert, for example, recently brought students for a visit to the Postal Plaza who are working on concepts for retail and relaxation spaces in the Gallery. Knowing that, I paid particular attention to how the Broad handled their café and museum store. Our own potential at the Postal Plaza Gallery for a café is minimal—indeed, we are loath to compete with downtown businesses to whose success we hope to contribute! But our projected bookstore set-up isn’t very different from the Broad’s: our reception desk doubles as a glass-fronted display for exhibition catalogues, postcards, or other retail items. Because many of our exhibitions—including the first two—are accompanied by catalogues, we need this space. But we don’t want it to overwhelm the visitor experience, which we hope will be focused on the work in the galleries!
As our focus on retaining classroom space suggests, the permanent art collection is central to our mission. As an historian and critic of contemporary art, I was personally delighted with much of the work on view at the Broad—including these breathtaking sculptures by Chen Qiulin. But as a scholar and teacher of the history of art more broadly (my own research ranges from the 18th century to the present, and the coursework I offer covers even more breadth; and I have four colleagues in the Art History program alone whose work expands yet further), I was dismayed by the lack of attention paid to the excellent and diverse permanent collection that the Broad inherited from the Kresge Museum.
Eli and Edythe Broad collect contemporary art, and from the early days of the Broad Art Museum project, it was clear that its focus, too, would be contemporary. But the significance of the existing Kresge collection was undeniable, and so it was generally agreed that its integration into the galleries would strengthen visitors’—and, critically, students’—experience. Contextualizing contemporary work within the history of art, and offering new perspectives on the historic artworks, the idea seemed win-win. In practice, however, it appears to have been a challenge. For one thing, the scale of contemporary art is often radically different from that of older artworks (contemporary art is BIG). Moreover, contemporary art is designed to be seen in contemporary spaces—whereas older work was often designed for radically different sites and practices. Thoughtful selection and presentation could ameliorate these issues; but my experience at the Broad was that this didn’t happen. Soweto House with Prepaid Water Meter is a concept by Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrč, realized by the staff at the Broad, who built an actual house based on the artist’s renderings. It is a work, I was told by a student docent, that is “about human rights.” Specifically, about water rights in South Africa—although the artist stresses that the politics of water are universally relevant and urgent.
The permanent collection works placed in opposition to the Soweto House, however, are not about human rights. Instead, they engage with fertility, the spirit world, and other culturally-specific themes. So why did the curator(s) think that they made sense in this gallery? I was left to assume that it was because these objects were created on the African continent—albeit in countries and from cultures far removed from South Africa. The juxtaposition was apparently based on an uncritical conception of “Africa” as a monolithic and alien entity (or, more generously, it may have been based on a critical reading—left unstated in gallery texts, if so, and thereby in danger of replicating the notion—of Africa as the perennial object of a patronizing European gaze). Its thoughtlessness was unsettling in a context that clearly prides itself on intellectual hipness.
(After I visited the Broad, I walked into the heart of campus to visit the Michigan State University Museum. There I saw two exhibitions, “East Meets West: The Transgender Community of Istanbul,” which displayed photographs by Mary Robert, and “Adventures in Time and the 3rd Dimension: Through the Stereoscope,” an exhibition drawn largely from the personal collection of former curator Val Berryman of the history of 3d imaging technologies. As far as socially conscious and historically integrated explorations of contemporary art and visual culture go, these exhibitions blew the Broad’s offerings out of the water.)
Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African art is not one of the areas of expertise among the Broad curatorial staff. And while one might suggest that this lack could be productively re-framed as an ideal opportunity to reach out to the university faculty or student body, I decided to consider instead how the Broad was taking advantage of its in-house intellectual strengths. Michael Rush, museum director and semi-celebrity hire (Rush was formerly at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University), is an expert in the field of new media art, and one outstanding decision at the Broad was to have a dedicated gallery for new media. The Postal Plaza Gallery, too, will have a new media gallery—reflecting our commitment not just to being a world-class venue for the entire history of art, but also to the particular interests of our students and faculty. OSU’s programs in graphic design, studio art, architecture, interior design, communications, and more are becoming increasingly oriented toward time-based media and digital design. Our new media gallery will give us the opportunity to showcase faculty curators and a wide range of international artists working at the forefront of contemporary trends.
Even the most high-tech museum sometimes falls back on low-tech solutions. Going behind the scenes with Broad Museum registrar Rachel Vargas, I was immediately drawn to the foam-core-board model of the galleries—something familiar to me from every museum I’ve worked in, whether their annual operating budget was $25,000 or $2.5 million.
Overall, my experience at the Broad reconfirmed many of my beliefs about the strengths of the OSU Museum of Art, which is profoundly dedicated to its educational mission. We don’t have the rock-star budget of the Broad, or its rock-star access to major works of contemporary art (yet!). But we do have a close connection to our campus and community through our collaborations and programs—and we have an incredibly successful track record of engaging students with historical and contemporary issues through thoughtful engagement with the permanent collection. We have created beautiful and exciting exhibitions, both from our own collection and by engaging traveling shows and guest artists. As we move into the final months before our own opening, I am proud that we continue to hold ourselves to these high standards—and reach ever higher.
Unless otherwise noted, photography is my own.