When the Broad Museum’s public programming was entrusted to Tammy Fortin in the winter of 2012-‘13, she had to move fast to get the cultural lay of the land in MSU and greater Lansing. Her strategy: massive doses of caffeine.
“I just started connecting the dots, finding out who might want to do something at the Broad, and asking them out for coffee,” she said. “The first month, I probably had 100 meetings and 500 cups of coffee.”
In its first year, the Broad has put on a wild variety of concerts, lectures, films and unclassifiable happenings, from a Brooklyn guitarist who jams with insects to a salon-style jazz concert to indie rock shows to politically charged panel discussions. Far-flung visitors and local talent have both found a showcase.
There’s no medium Fortin won’t tap to make art pop a little more. To bring one of the year’s headier art exhibits, “Blind Field,” closer to home, she led a July bike ride through greater Lansing, linking the itinerary to the urban landscapes of 20 young Brazilian artists at the Broad.
“That bike tour was genius,” Broad Museum Director Michael Rush said. “The Brazil exhibition was a little heavy on the conceptual side, which is fine. We want to stretch people. But associating conditions in Lansing with conditions in Brazil through the pleasurable activity of a bike trip was really fantastic. We’re lucky to have her.”
Fortin, 44, arrived in East Lansing in September 2012 from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she was media arts assistant.
MSU music composition professor Mark Sullivan, a longtime presence on the area’s avant-garde arts scene, felt a sea change at the Broad when Fortin came on board.
“For a while, I was sort of waiting to see what they were going to be all about,” Sullivan said. “Would the museum be this bubble, apart from everything? At some point, around the first of the year, things went into a different mode. They put their money where their mouth is. They’re actually willing to get out there and do programs with people. It’s a fresh and encouraging opportunity.”
When Fortin asked Sullivan to join a dialogue keyed to an art exhibit in March, they didn’t just sit and talk about Guillermo Kuitca’s “Diarios,” an exhibit then running at the Broad. They riffed on the artist’s ideas about creativity in visual art and music and added some of their own. One of
Sullivan’s students performed 4’33”, John Cage’s infamous silent piece of music. Sullivan performed an electronic piece by Hungarian composer Gyorgi Ligeti, with a visual projection of the score.
Sullivan told Fortin he felt like they were playing jazz together.
“It was a blast,” he said. “I haven’t been able to do anything like that around here for a while.”
In all, the Broad hosted about 60 events in its first year, from artist talks to films to concerts.
Fortin’s favorite so far was perhaps the strangest:
Brooklyn-based Zach Layton’s Insect Chorus concert May 19.
Layton has mixed his bowed electric guitar with recorded insect noises, but the Broad concert went one better. For the first time, Layton jammed in real time with carefully miked gnawing and chirping insects.
Art plugs into everything. As if to prove that no MSU department, however shy and horn-rimmed, could turn down a date with the glamorous Broad, insects from MSU’s Entomology Department were imported for the occasion. Live insects joined the music and glass displays of exotic specimens served as art. The result was a strange and transcendent afternoon.
“The MSU Bug House was on it,” Fortin said. “They seized the opportunity, came in with all these amazing insects and they were so easy and fun to work with.”
Layton lingered after the concert, talking with about 20 inquiring listeners. He told Fortin he hadn’t met up with so appreciative an audience in a long time.
Fortin was first hired last fall to manage the Broad’s opening exhibit, a clever mass infiltration of MSU and the surrounding community.
German artist Jochen Gerz came to East Lansing to mount a massive conceptual art project, “The Gift,” a project that involved training student photographers to take hundreds of portraits of people from all over the community.
Fortin handled the job so deftly she was eased into a new role: curatorial program manager.
Dan Hirsch, the Broad’s first public program director, had left the museum in early winter, having made little inroads into the community.
Now Fortin found herself juggling “assistant curator stuff’ with producing public programs. She sensed the possibilities instantly.
“We’re within MSU, but we’re kind of on the edge, even if you look at our physical space,” she said. “We have the ability to pull these different threads, reach into different departments, to connect them with the visual arts.”
Fortin and the Broad staff plan to troll the university for thinkers and researchers from any department to bounce art into the world in new ways. It helps that the Broad is not part of any academic department at MSU — not even the Art Department. Fortin and the staff can tap into any brain at the university and set up an event without getting into a turf war.
“We can invite a scientist and have them talk about how molecular biology might relate to a work on view in the gallery,” Fortin said. “You might never look at a painting the same way again.”
Fortin wanted the programming to grow “organically” from the home grown talent pool around MSU, Lansing and East Lansing, to encompass visitors from anywhere in the world.
“I look at it as a spiral going outward,” she said.
In April, for the opening of an exhibit of MFA students at MSU, Fortin tapped into the local rock scene with Lansing area band Yogurt Culture and John Olson of post-industrial noise band Wolf Eyes.
In September, the Broad and City Pulse hosted an outdoor concert with Lansing-based bands People’s Temple and Wayne Szalinski to kick off a salon-style exhibit of portraits by Hope Gangloff. The artist gave an informal talk on the same night of the concert.
As the night went on, people who came for the concert on the lawn filtered into the museum and museum-goers drifted outside, attracted to the music.
Last month, MSU Jazz Professor Etienne Charles played a sizzling gig in the same gallery, taking advantage of the salon atmosphere while wrestling with brittle acoustics unsuited to jazz.
The Broad’s unbroken glass, steel and varnished wood floors make for a lively sound — too lively for many acoustic instruments. Some of the high notes at Charles’ concert might be still bouncing around the Minskoff Gallery until 2018. The Broad staff is tinkering with acoustic softeners for some spaces, but curator Alison Gass said it would be better to learn a lesson from the most successful art of the past year and roll with the building rather than fight it.
“We’re not a concert hall, and we should embrace that,” Gass said.
To that end, Fortin is working with the College of Music on a new series of commissioned works that take advantage of the Broad’s unusual acoustics and weird spaces, whether it’s tubas in the stairwell or Theremins under glass, leaving Mozart and Miles Davis to the refurbished Cook Recital Hall and Fairchild Theatre.
Ashlee Busch, a graduate student and instructor in electronic music composition at MSU, already worked with Fortin in to put together a similar concert series, Sound Escapes, spring 2013. Some of the music was paired with streaming videos, live dance and even real time painting.
“Concerts at art museums are a much more inclusive sensory experience,” Busch said. “You don’t have to worry about the social restrictions that are placed on you in a ‘normal’ musical experience.”
Busch’s next project at the Broad is a “micro-works” concert of about 60 oneminute-long pieces inspired directly by the museum’s architecture.
“The building is incredibly beautiful, and there’s so much intricacy and detail in the construction, that we thought it would be fantastic as inspiration for creating new music,” Busch said.
Any college composition student in Michigan will be invited. The composers will be given time to visit the building, look it over, and even record ambient sounds in the galleries they might use in their electro-acoustic compositions.
The Broad’s hard acoustics were just right for the hypnotic drones and overtones of New York-based electric guitar duet Dither on March 15.
Dither has a lot of New York cred, having worked with avant-garde musicians like Elliott Sharp, John Zorn and Fred Frith, but East Lansing greeted them with a space unlike any in the Big Apple and an enthusiastic audience.
Fortin has an eclectic feel for music, having been a musician herself for almost 25 years. She’s been involved in several rock groups. One of them, Excuses for Skipping, was together for about six years, touring up and down the West Coast and playing Austin’s South by Southwest festival.
“It was a total love affair with shoe-gaze music, an homage to the band Ride, but it later became a post-punk thing,” she said. “It became its own thing, just by virtue of the members being open and creative people.”
She also played in a band called Aerosol Species and a punk unit called Dyke van Dick.
Her life path prepared her to take the Broad’s programming in many of directions. She grew up in Massachusetts, studied anthropology in college, decided to check out the West Coast and ended up staying there 22 years. Along the way, she went to Mexico and wrote a screenplay called “The Gorgeous Alcoholic” she still would like to develop.
“I just wanted to travel and write,” she said. Back in San Francisco, she worked at a bookstore 10 years and became an editor at Lonely Planet guidebooks. She ended up at SF MOMA through sheer pluck.
“My unemployment ran out, and I just decided I needed to get a job,” she said. She started sending resumes to places she thought would be “amazing to work at.” SF MOMA hired her.
“I was lucky. They liked me. It was a great run there for me.” Fortin was at SF MOMA for two years when Alison Gass came on board as curator.
She finds that people in Lansing frequently make incorrect assumptions about her.
“People always ask me if I’m experiencing culture shock, coming here from San Francisco, and in a way, I don’t like that question,” she said.
“It would mean that I’d never known anything else but San Francisco.
Obviously, there is a cultural difference, but people are people everywhere.”
She grew up in North Adams, Mass., a working-class town, where she dreamed of being a stunt woman and a pirate.
“Even in San Francisco, I still had North Adams in my blood,” she said.
“There are obvious differences between Lansing and San Francisco, but we love it here and we’re having a good time.”
Fortin is keeping her hand in as a musician by playing drums for the roots-folk-rock assembly Lansing Unionized Vaudeville Spectacle.
One of her goals was to make it to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before her first year in the state was over, and she made it when the group trundled across the U.P. this summer.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. The band bus, loaded down with 15 musicians, cut a wide swath through the U.P., including the historic Calumet Opera House, the Vista Theater in Negaunee, a lot of breweries that paid them in beer. They made it half way up the remote Keweenaw Peninsula.
“We wanted to go to Agate Beach, but we weren’t sure if we would be able to turn the bus around,” she said.
The Keweenaw’s fabled Jam Pot, where an enclave of monks make homemade delicacies, gave Fortin the idea for a different kind of jam session.
“Maybe we can bring the St. John’s monks to the Broad Museum so they can make jam for us,” she said. She was smiling, but she was probably dead serious.