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Wednesday, July 7,2010

Man of two worlds

Broad Museum adviser Carl Koivuniemi is equally at home in Michigan or Manhattan

by Lawrence Cosentino
Carl Koivuniemi is a New Yorker to the core, but visions of the past and future keep pulling him back to Michigan.

Koivuniemi retired last October as deputy chief planning and budget officer of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he worked for 27 years, calmly juggling eight- and nine-figure budgets.


This month, he’ll join about 100 farflung relatives for a reunion on the Lake Michigan dunes, following a 56-year tradition. He grew up in tiny St. Ignace, at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge, where many of his fellow Finns still dwell among the pines and pasties.


“It’s a very special time of the year for me, going back there,” he said.


But yesterday isn’t the only thing drawing Koivuniemi to Michigan. This year, a steel-and-glass phantom from tomorrow tapped his shoulder.


Koivuniemi is on the seven-member board of advisers for Michigan State University’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, now under construction at Koivuniemi’s alma mater (class of 1969) and slated for completion in spring 2012.


The board of advisers is helping MSU work out “big-picture” plans for the new museum, according to Associate Provost Linda Stanford.


As a medieval art and music expert accustomed to walking the halls of a century-old institution, Koivuniemi is intrigued by the blank slate of a brandnew museum.


“The way it’s being approached is very exciting,” he said.


“I wish we’d had something like this when I was there.”


For now, the Broad Museum is a cement-lined, 22-foot-deep hole in the ground. (Construction is on schedule, according to project manager Kevin Waldman.)


This fall, angular interior walls will begin to form above ground. In 2011, the museum’s shell will start carving the sky into fractals.


Koivuniemi loves the spiky skirt of stainless steel designed by architect Zaha Hadid and emphatically rejects the idea that his old school — and Greater Lansing — won’t swallow the sharp edges.


“First of all, Eli Broad is not going to give you that money for anything else,” Koivuniemi said. “He wants that museum built.”


The Broads have donated $28 million to the project, which is expected to cost $40 million to $45 million. More than $33 million has been raised so far.


“Second, a lot of people are going to be really surprised at what a fabulous focus this will be for the university and the community.”


Koivuniemi said the Met Museum averages 5 million visitors a year — the largest tourist attraction in New York, with a higher attendance every year than all the sports stadiums combined.


MSU’s Broad Museum can never match the breadth or depth of a Met, but Koivuniemi said that’s not necessarily bad.


“Working with an existing building, as I have, it’s more of a challenge than something free standing in a field, as is being done at MSU,” he said.


He strongly endorsed the plan recommended by MSU and Lord Cultural Resources, a consulting firm, to concentrate on short-term exhibits rather than collecting.


“You can build a worldclass institution really quickly by having temporary exhibitions of outstanding contemporary art,” he said. “You’re not focusing on a collection that would be very hard to amass from scratch and would require significant financial resources.”


It’s a safe bet that some exhibits will draw upon the Broads’ own collection of contemporary art, as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, also funded by Broad, has done. (Joanne Heyler, director and chief curator of the Broad Art Foundation, is also on the Broad Museum advisory board at MSU.) When critics say this is just a way for big donors to throw their weight around, soft-spoken Koivuniemi gets a little hot.


“There are always art critics who are trying to raise issues about donors that loan their collections to museums, and it’s bullshit,” he said. “You’re giving the public a chance to see fabulous works of art. It doesn’t cost them as much as it would to buy the works themselves or assemble the exhibition from scratch.


“Not all my colleagues at the Met Museum might agree with me, but I feel strongly about that.”


Koivuniemi also praised rotating exhibits as “a very exciting way to involve the entire university and the Lansing community.”


The College of Engineering, for example, could tie its annual design competition with a Broad Museum project, as was suggested at a recent board of advisers meeting.


“If they do it right, they’ll be a pioneering museum in that way,” Koivuniemi said.


It’s not lost on Koivuniemi that even his own metropolis lacks a building designed by Hadid. The only other Hadid opus in the United States is the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati. Besides drawing Hadid-hungry visitors from around the world, Koivuniemi predicted the Broad Museum would give businesses more reasons to move to the area.


“A lot of metro New York corporations weigh the cost of doing business here against what they would lose if they relocated, say, to a more rural area, or a place that didn’t have so many cultural advantages,” he said. With businesses around the country vying for top talent, he said, a town’s cultural pizzazz is a crucial draw.


“So it’s not too much for the Lansing area to absorb,” he said. “It’s just the sort of thing Lansing needs, with the automobile industry manufacturing base declining in Michigan.”


Since the Broad Museum design was selected, its estimated cost has risen from $30 million to $40 to $45 million, but if you want to make Koivuniemi flinch, you have to do better than that.


At the Met Museum, he handled an annual operating budget of $170 million, plus $60 million-$80 million a year in renovation, expansion and other construction projects.


There have been overruns, he said, in every project he’s ever handled.


“With my experience with working with people in the arts, it’s not that they don’t pay attention to money, but they always want the best of what’s possible,” he said. As an advisory board member, Koivuniemi told MSU to expect more of the same, right up until the museum opens, and even after.


“For example, a gallery is constructed, and it’s decided that one of the walls is in the wrong place, and maybe it should be moved,” he said.


All you can do, he said, is make sure the designers “know their limits” and have a contingency fund on hand.


Koivuniemi didn’t start out moving mountains of money. After leaving St. Ignace to study French at MSU, he joined the Peace Corps for three years, teaching in Cameroon.


While studying one summer in New York, he spotted a classified ad looking for “someone interested in music and gardening.” At the Cloisters, a branch of the Met Museum, his first job was as esoteric as they come: to identify plants depicted in medieval tapestries so their real counterparts could be planted in the museum’s gardens.


Soon, he was managing a medieval concert series and overseeing the branch’s budget. He took to the financial side of museum work, got an MBA and ended up at the Met Museum for 27 years, with a brief hiatus working for CBS. Now that he’s retired, he’s ready to focus on another love: music. He plays clarinet and violin in several chamber music ensembles. “I really love New York,” he said. “I had no intention of spending the rest of my life here, but that’s how it turned out.”

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