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Wednesday, February 15,2012

Spotting the 'spaceship'

Everybody's a critic as the Broad Museum finally settles to Earth

by Lawrence Cosentino

The most frequent word you hear is “spaceship.” Some people mean it as a compliment and others don’t.

For two years, MSU’s new Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum was an abstract swoosh on a black sign at the corner of Collingwood Road and Grand River Avenue, a sketchy signal to the Midwest from Planet Zaha Hadid.

Even after ground broke in March 2010, it was hard to believe that a grassy plot among the ivy-covered halls of Michigan State would be home to the latest creation of a star architect who is altering cityscapes in Abu Dhabi, London, Rome and Guangzhou.

But the past several weeks, after years of below-the-radar planning and foundation work, the museum has taken dramatic shape. Suddenly, it’s the surrounding campus and town that look like a museum — of ancient history. Day by day, Hadid’s dynamic design is slicing into the three-dimensional world, surfacing on the university’s main drag like a stainless steel shark. 

There’s nothing like it in New York or L.A., let alone East Lansing. An earlier local specimen of international design, the arch of a former Taco Bell across the street, can be seen reflected in the Broad Museum’s custom-made plates of glass like a relic of primitive man.

The spaceship wisecrack is easy to make, but it says less about the building — a dazzling box of mystery that’s surprisingly logical inside — than it does about early local reaction.

Will a community with a history of ambivalence about modern art and architecture welcome the gleaming silver emissary from Planet Zaha? Pop some corn and sit back. The fall 2012 opening of the Broad Museum is still months away. Greater Lansing’s close encounter with world-class architecture and art is only in the first reel, the part where the spinning saucer shuts off its retro-rockets and comes to rest in a cloud of dust. Some Earthlings are ready to lock and load, others to bow in surrender, others to make friends and learn what they can about another world. 


Push and pull

“For the inquisitive mind, a building like this really is a playground,” Michael Rush said.

Rush, the Broad Museum’s founding director, takes groups through the Broad Museum almost daily. For over a year, he’s been watching the museum go up from his temporary office in the Student Services Building to the north. “I see this incredible tension from the east to the west, like somebody trying to push the building to the west,” he said. “An enormous opening [the west entrance plaza] halts that push and stabilizes it.”

The quantum bump recalls MSU’s other international showcase, its superconducting cyclotron. On the museum’s swooping west side, Stephen Hawking accelerates into Isaac Newton. The west wall, pitched at a jaw-dropping 74 degree angle, seems to taunt stolid Berkey Hall next door for obeying old-fashioned gravity.

To describe the building’s energy, Rush invoked one of his favorite 20th-century artists, Hans Hoffmann. Hoffmann’s bold, blocky colors and forms bridged the diverse worlds of Cezanne, Picasso and the abstract expressionists. Rush finds that Hoffmann’s famous “push/pull” theory of art fits Hadid’s design to a Z.

“You do one thing to one side of the canvas, you do the opposite on the other side, you come together in the middle,” Rush said. “You keep pushing and pulling and creating tension.” He nodded at the museum outside his window. “So you’ve got an object of abstract beauty, but it’s the result of this tension.”

From local arts groups to prospective donors to Lithuanian architecture students, early visitors to the Broad haven’t criticized the building to Rush’s face, but he’s aware there might be a backlash out there.

“Tension is not a good word to many people,” Rush said. “Many people medicate themselves against it. That’s understandable, but to get our expectations ruffled or even ruptured is a good thing.”

Of course, Rush is likely to only hear certain things from certain people. How many Lithuanian architecture students talk trash about Zaha Hadid? The question is beyond even City Pulse’s research department.

A morning radio host hears from a lot of different folks. Tim Barron, a Lansing radio man for over 20 years, said he’s already gotten an earful about the new building, both pro and con.

“Our town is an interesting town,” Barron philosophized. “It’s got smart, art-appreciating people and people who believe in only two kinds of food, fried and deep-fried. That group is wondering what the funny-looking spacecraft is that landed on campus.”

On a recent trip out west, Barron enjoyed coastal anguish over the impending opening of the Broad. Although the museum will be mainly devoted to temporary shows, it’s a sure bet that Eli Broad, the L.A.-based tycoon and MSU alumnus who donated most of the money for the museum, will disgorge major works of art from his western strongholds, including the L.A. County Museum of Modern Art, to East Lansing. 

“It was quite the hubbub in the Los Angeles art community,” Barron said. “Out there it was portrayed as the hinterlands, throwing art at the savages.”

Barron is the kind of guy who isn’t afraid of calling something he doesn’t like a “pantload,” but he’s no savage. He flatly declared that he likes the building.

“We can always use something to rattle the status quo, and it’s refreshing to see, especially from Grand River, where everyone can see it,” he said.

“Although I do love brick and ivy, we’ve had plenty of it. It looks fine and someone else is paying for it. We shouldn’t complain.”


‘Why are we doing this?’

Three blocks away from the Broad Museum, just off the Grand River main drag, genial Tom and Linda Dufelmeier run the 22-year-old Mackerel Sky Gallery of Contemporary Craft. An unpretentious shop full of jewelry, ceramics and gifts, with a modest gallery in the back for work by local artists, might be perfect place for an L.A. snob to expect local resistance to an invasion from Planet Zaha. Not so. 

The Dufelmeiers report that in the shop, opinion on the gleaming object down the street easily runs 10 to 1 in favor.

Tom Dufelmeier said dozens of customers from around the state have already come just to look at the building.

“The only disappointment is that it won’t open in April,” Linda Dufelmeier said. The museum’s originally scheduled April opening was delayed because of construction complications.

“One person complained that there won’t be enough parking,” Tom Dufelmeier chimed in.

In the meantime, the Dufelmeiers are happily tracking the most spectacular architectural show the region may ever see.

“The highlight of my day is coming to work every morning,” she said. “I hope the light will turn red at Collingwood so I can see what’s going on.”

“We get a couple of grumps who complain it’s not in the style of the buildings around it,” her husband said. “I ask them what do they want — another Student Services Building?”

Funny you should ask. Just around the corner from the Dufelmeiers’ low-key gallery is Saper Galleries, the area’s largest and most established art gallery, owned by Roy Saper for over 30 years.

Saper exhibits a striking push/pull of his own when he talks about the Broad. On one hand, he called it “the most significant art venture mid-Michigan will likely ever see.”

“We should applaud, recognize, appreciate and value the efforts that are being made for our benefit,” he proclaimed.

But Saper is also the unofficial local focal point of distrust, puzzlement and anger over the building and its potential contents. He said “hundreds of people” have buttonholed him in the gallery and elsewhere to kvetch about the Broad.

“We’ve never seen anything like this, both the building and the content,” he said. “The displays will be so foreign to most people. There are very, very few people who really connect with contemporary art.”

Saper’s skepticism seems focused less on the building than on the enterprise as a whole. Saper said that when he was president of the now-defunct Friends of Kresge Art Museum, or served on its board, “there was never a dialogue that we need more contemporary art. Why are we doing this? Is there a void here?” he asked.

“Just hanging artwork that Eli Broad likes, or that is written up in Art in America magazine, might work in L.A. but it won’t work in Lansing.”

There will be plenty of time to talk about the art after the museum opens in the fall. When it comes to the building, Saper tells his puzzled patrons “not to judge a book by its cover” and wait until the museum opens “before we’re quite so critical about it.” Saper’s passive-aggressive plea for open-mindedness presupposes criticism of the building, but he’s reluctant to give his personal take.

“It looks like a working accordion, frozen in time,” he offered. “People also say it looks like Venetian blinds after a storm.”

Saper won’t say whether he approves, but his finger is in the wind.

“Think of the news reports about the Eiffel Tower,” he said. “People said it was crazy. The Guggenheim Museum is another example.”

He compared the building to a longtime architectural whipping boy of East Lansing residents, the tubular blue and orange parking structure behind the main Grand River drag. Whatever his innermost thoughts, Saper clearly thinks the Broad, both building and museum, will be a tough sell to greater Lansing.

“This is one of the most phenomenal challenges that has been placed before our community,” Saper said. “I wager that most people will walk away confused.”

Saper’s prediction that locals won’t cotton to the Broad evokes the infamous episode of “The Simpsons” where Frank Gehry, in a guest appearance he later regretted, designs a performing arts center for Springfield, the show’s Everytown. A mob of philistines turns against the strange building, especially when they learn that a concert by Philip Glass is in the works, and it ends up as a penitentiary.

Can it happen here? It already has. The most infamous episode in Lansing’s art history is the rise and fall of “This Equals That,” by internationally renowned sculptor Michael Heizer. When installed in the State Capitol Complex in 1980, funded by state and private funds, it was the largest sculpture in the United States, Lansing’s “Stonehenge.”

In the adventurous spirit of the times, then-Gov. William G. Milliken approved the selection, commenting that he didn’t want to plant “another politician on a horse” downtown.

In a huge array of geometric forms, “this” — a pill-shaped cylinder 48 feet thick — was juxtaposed with “that” — 14 smaller forms representing two halves, four quarters and eight eighths of the pill.

The sculpture rested on a plaza west of the state Capitol for 22 years before being dismantled — and damaged — in 2002 to repair to the roof of the state parking lot below it. From there, the state stuck it in a field in Mason, where the elements did further damage. Detroit art patron Richard Manoogian rescued it, but it was last seen in one of his warehouses. A Heizer representative said it was too far gone to be installed anywhere else without extensive restoration.

Tourists from around the world came to see the Heizer piece. I remember sitting at my City Pulse desk in 2004, explaining to a baffled German tourist that it was gone. The meager list of cultural “must-sees” in greater Lansing was reduced by one item.

State budget officials said the sculpture had cracked, allowing water to seep into the underground garage below, but there was little local impetus for a rescue.

John Truscott, former press secretary to then-Gov. John Engler, invoked the classic complaint against abstract art in a December 2003 radio interview: “It looked like something an elementary school kid could have done.”

A 2002 editorial in the Lansing State Journal opined that the state needed “a little more Norman Rockwell and a little less Picasso.”

MSU has had its share of art flaps, too. Not far from the Broad Museum site, in the courtyard of the Snyder-Phillips residence, stands the biggest piece of public art to be erected on the MSU campus in recent years, the 26-foot-tall, 36-foot long “Funambulist.” The cantilevered red and black form was vandalized at least three times before its dedication in October 2010, once with the sarcastically scrawled word “art,” and is still a common object of scorn among students.


Artistic elasticity

According to architectural critic Joseph Giovannini, who organized the design competition for the Broad Museum in 2008, the pivotal moment in the judges’ deliberations came when Dolores Wharton, longtime arts champion at MSU, looked at Hadid’s design and said, “That’s the BMW scheme — elegant, dynamic, cool. That’s the building we want to drive.”

Speaking by phone from New York last week, Wharton said the issue of culture shock never entered her mind, or came up in the panel’s discussions.

“MSU has always been willing to explore new ideas,” Wharton said. “It’s the pioneering land grant college. That was its mantra.”

That’s standard MSU boilerplate, but Wharton says it with a personal emphasis. “Bold,” “world class” and “MSU” ring together naturally for her. Her husband, Clifton Wharton, was the first African-American to become president of a major, predominantly white university. She compared Cowles House, the president’s digs, to any ambassador’s residence she has seen in her world travels. While the Whartons were at MSU, she packed the house with first-class art and led a world-class life, hosting visiting luminaries from Rudolf Nureyev to Duke Ellington.

In the early 1980s, Wharton was part of the team that chose the design and raised money for the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts, later named after her husband and herself. She called the Broad design a “logical” next step in MSU’s evolution.

“I felt there was enough energy and interest and excitement for a new way of thinking, accepting a building like this,” Wharton said. “I’m an arts person and an MSU person. I didn’t feel as if I had to be a sociologist and worry about all the different segments of the community. I felt I could be myself, go ahead and express my own opinions.”

Enthusiasm over the museum cuts across the arts, at least among the area’s cultural leaders. 

Michael Brand, director of the Wharton Center, predicted that the museum will “reinvigorate cultural awareness in central Michigan, especially the campus.”

The two director Michaels, Rush and Brand, are already planning performing arts collaborations involving avant-garde theater, dance and music usually seen in New York or L.A. with the art shows at Broad. A Fringe Festival modeled after those in Minneapolis and Edinburgh may not be far behind.

“It’s going to have a huge effect,” Brand said.  “It’s going to expand the artistic elasticity of everybody.”

Timothy Muffitt, music director of the Lansing Symphony, agreed. He called the building “spectacular.”

Muffitt, who lives in East Lansing, isn’t worried about public bafflement over the design. He pointed out that as a conductor, he gets only one shot at putting a modern piece of music over, but architecture is different.

“The nice thing about a building is that you drive by it many times, and if you don’t get it right away, you have time to digest it, let it speak to you,” he said.

Like Brand, Muffitt thinks the building’s presence will move the area’s cultural needle, perhaps making it easier for him to program more contemporary music.

“Any kind of high quality, cutting edge artistic expression opens the door for people to understand and appreciate other forms as well,” he said.

The lubricants of tourism and international buzz might help. Muffitt can turn from maestro to accountant on a dime when he talks about the Broad.

“We want to let the world know this is a great place to live,” he said. “Nothing says that like an important piece of art, whether it’s a piece of architecture or a new museum, that this is a forward-looking, progressive, artistically aware community. That’s the kind of place potential business want to locate and invest their capital.”

Rush and the Broad Museum’s new curator, Alison Gass, are making the rounds of the community, touting the museum’s potential to draw throngs of international visitors and pump up the local economy.

Rush saw a vivid case in point when he recently visited Guangzhou, China, home to an undulating, amoeba-like new opera house — by Zaha Hadid.

“This was a typical provincial city in China that is now a must-see place on the world architectural map,” Rush said.

Rush said it’s not just outsiders, but residents who change their attitude when a remarkable structure springs up in their midst.

“It gives them a sense of pride that people from all over the world are interested,” he said.

A similar lift awaits greater Lansing, according to Rush.

“People are smarter than we give them credit for and a lot more adventurous,” he said. 

Dolores Wharton said she’s still proud of the panel’s choice.  

“This is about today and tomorrow,” Wharton said. “Are we supposed to stand still because people aren’t ready to stretch themselves? People are intelligent. They will take the time to look and explore.”

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