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Thursday, May 26,2011

So long, St. Anthony

Kresge Art Museum's collection will not have a permanent home at the Broad Art Museum

by Lawrence Cosentino

(Editor's note: The print edition of this story misidentified Suzanne Brouse's position. She is president of the Friends of Kresge.)


When a house falls on a witch, the witch shrivels up and
her shoes are recycled. When an art museum drops out of the sky onto
another art museum, it’s more complicated.


Michigan State University’s 51-year-old Kresge Art Center
will close its doors at the end of July, one month after the $40 million
Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum is born as a fiscal entity.


The Broad Museum won’t open until spring 2012, but the
half-finished structure is already turning heads as it flips open like
concrete origami on Grand River Avenue.


So far, the fate of Kresge’s art collection has been
overshadowed by the buzz over an international tourist magnet and a
major new showcase for contemporary art, designed by world-renowned
architect Zaha Hadid.


But for one door to open, another has to close — at least where the Broad Museum is concerned.


“People are suddenly realizing that the closing is soon upon us,” Friends of Kresge president Suzanne Brouse said.


When Kresge closes, about 7,500 works of art, from Greek
and Roman artifacts to Islamic manuscripts to European portraits and
landscapes, will be transferred to the Broad Museum, but they won’t be
on display as before.


In one of Kresge’s most famous paintings, a 17th-century
oil portrait of St. Anthony of Padua, the saint looks like he’s praying
for more space for himself and the rest of the art. Soon he’ll be
supplicating from a crate.


The same goes for Kresge’s 12th-century Chinese tiger
pillow (finest in the West, says the museum plaque), the Dali painting,
the Rodin lady, the Calder thingy, the box by Joseph Cornell, the
Buddhas and fertility gods, and the rest of the gang.


“There will be no gallery for the historic collection,”
Broad Museum director Michael Rush told a meeting of the Kresge docent
board April 1. 


Rush said Kresge’s art, now called the “historic
collection,” will be available to faculty for research and brought out
selectively, to give context to contemporary art exhibits at the Broad
Museum.


The change is drawing a wide range of reactions from supporters of Kresge.


“I think it’s deplorable,” said art donor and longtime
Kresge supporter Paul Strassman. “I don’t see why the old museum can’t
be specialized as a historical collection. Why does it have to be closed
up? It’s kind of peculiar.”


“I think it’s wonderful,” Friends of Kresge member
Joyce Banish said. “We need museums to show the work of contemporary
artists.”


“I’m embracing the change,” said seven-year Kresge docent
Kazuko Thornton. “I’m hoping it will be wonderful. We are still learning
what contemporary art will look like, but I’m open to it.” 


“I don’t think this is a good decision,” said museum
docent Nell Corkin. “We’ve got this collection we’ve built up over some
40 years. Leave it where it is, for heaven’s sake.”


Brouse diplomatically split the difference. “There’s some
nostalgia there, but it’s mixed with excitement over what the Broad will
be like,” she said.


In an interview Friday, Rush zeroed in on worries over Kresge’s art.


“The misunderstanding that it will be locked up and
sealed, never to be seen again, is really false,” he said. “It will be
used and enjoyed in new and dynamic ways, and we’re giving a hint of
that.”


Rush’s hint, currently on view at Kresge, blends historic treasures with one of his biggest passions, video art.


In a grouping of diverse cultural rock stars, a
seventh-century pope (Gregory I), a 14th-century Spanish bishop and a
wooden Yoruba warrior from west Africa hold a time-traveling,
cross-cultural summit with a video of Pope John Paul II addressing his
flock.  “John Paul takes his place as a new media icon,” reads the text under the exhibit.


A few feet away, one of Kresge’s signature pieces, Harry
Bertoia’s beryllium chimes, is hooked to a hypnotic big-screen video
that translates sounds into light patterns.


“That’s one of the great assets of having a historical
collection,” Rush said. “We can remove objects from the strictures of
historical timelines and place them in new historical contexts.”


Rush emphasized that no more than 2 percent of Kresge’s
collection is ever on display anyway. “Actually, more of the collection
is going to be seen (at the Broad), because so much of the artwork has
not been rotated enough,” he said.


Banish, a board member of the Friends of Kresge, said space has always been a problem.


“Kresge has always stored its work, so this doesn’t bother
me,” Banish said. “They made an agreement to build a contemporary art
museum, and that’s what they’re doing.”


However, not long ago, the space crunch was used to argue
the opposite — that Kresge’s art collection deserved its own expanded
gallery.


Expectations have taken a 180-degree turn since 1999, when
Better Art Museum, or BAM, was formed to raise funds for a new wing and
other improvements to Kresge.


In 2003, BAM and the Friends of Kresge
unveiled plans to quadruple Kresge’s space and renovate the building,
using privately donated funds, with the goal of doing justice to what is
now called the historic collection.  “The
quality of the collection has always far outclassed the facility that
housed it,” former Kresge director Susan Bandes said in 2003.


“If the exhibit can be faulted, it’s for an extra-artistic
reason — the inadequacy of the exhibition galleries,” art critic Roger
Green said in 2003. “The burgeoning art collection deserves a proper
home.”


In a 2003 interview, Bandes envisioned
huge walls for figurative expressionist canvases (a Kresge specialty), a
separate gallery for the extensive Works on Paper collection, and
separate spaces for the arts of China, Japan and India, which were
lumped together under the “Far East” rubric.


The $12 million expansion plan was dwarfed in 2007 by the
bombshell announcement that contemporary art collector Eli Broad would
give $26 million (later beefed up to $28 million) for a whole new
museum.


In a 2007 statement, Bandes said she was delighted with
the plan, and predicted the new museum would be “a fitting home for the
display, interaction with and contemplation of works of art in the
university’s collection and in special exhibitions.”


Bandes, who stepped down as museum director last May, declined to comment for this story.


The notion that Kresge’s art would get a permanent home at
the Broad Museum persisted into late 2010, when Kresge hosted a
grand-finale exhibit called “Best of Friends,” devoted to art donated by
the Friends of Kresge in the past 35 years.


The 2010 booklet tie-in for the “Friends” exhibit closed
with a pointed look forward to the Broad Museum: “With this iconic
building, the arts community and art museum friends look forward to
realizing their long-held ambitions for exhibitions and display space,”
it reads.


A source close to Kresge, who asked not to be named, said
that early designs for the Broad Museum included gallery space set aside
for the Kresge collection, but the space disappeared in later drafts.


Associate Provost Linda Stanford, MSU’s point person for
the Broad project, declined to say why the Kresge collection didn’t get a
permanent space, who made the decision, or whether any public input was
sought.


Instead, she e-mailed a generic statement
on the Broad Museum’s mission, “to serve as a cultural catalyst that
advances understanding of our world through the exploration of modern
and contemporary art.”


Rush said the decision was made before he arrived on the
scene as director in late 2010, but is consistent with the Broads’
vision.


“The founders, Eli and Edythe Broad, gave their money to
support a contemporary art museum on the campus of MSU,” Rush said.
“That’s the basic reality. When you have philanthropists entering the
situation at that level of giving, which is extraordinary, and it is the
donor intent for the museum to be a contemporary one, then that is what
we embrace.”


In 2006, retired MSU economics professor Paul Strassman
and his wife, Betty, donated a large painting made about 1600 by Flemish
artist David Vinckboons, “Abraham and Lot Depart for Canaan.” 


Kresge’s website is still celebrating the event. 


“Until now, (the Vinckboons) has never been on public
view,” it reads. “The museum staff looks forward to making this highly
significant painting better known among scholars and in our community.” 


When the “Best of Friends” show closed last month, the
Vinckboons was stored away. It’s not known whether Lot looked back or
not.


Reached by phone Saturday, Strassman, 88, said that now he is “not as glad” he donated the picture.


“There has to be space for the latest art, but the same
applies to the historical paintings,” he said. “The best ones should be
permanently on display.”


Strassman has decided not to donate other pictures he owns to MSU.


“I’ll give them to my grandchildren, and they can give
them to museums in Texas, Missouri and Chicago, where they live,” he
said.


While some people lament the impending changeover, others
are itching to move on. Last week, gangs of visiting 10-year-olds
invaded the Kresge Art Museum as part of Gesso, an educational program
that links art to language and math skills.


When Rush looked in on the activities Friday, the kids showed an openness to contemporary art that was more to his liking.


On Thursday, dozens of fifth-graders from Lansing’s Reo
Elementary School were enthralled by the chimes-and-video piece and a
huge, stripey abstract canvas by MSU master’s student Jon Anthony, “Pet
Rock,” hung just this spring.


“It’s looking back at me like I am the art,” one student said.


“I call this happiness,” another said.


“This painting will last until 2038,” another declared.


Rush said the Gesso program will expand at Broad, taking
its place among a much broader-based array of outreach and educational
opportunities. Docents who are game for the ride will have to retrain in
contemporary art.


Diane Knapp, a fifth-grade teacher at Reo, watched the docents work with the kids.


“I’m sure there will be expanded educational possibilities
in the Broad museum,” she said. “We’ll see different kinds of art, but
I’m hoping this will continue, because this is very powerful.”


“Actually, the kids respond better to contemporary art
than older art,” docent Karla Dulic said. “It’s their chaperones that
have trouble with it sometimes."

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