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MSU’s Broad Museum re-examines itself in search for new director

No right angles, no right answers

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On Homecoming Saturday at MSU this September, weather put the kibosh on a planned parade along Grand River Avenue. A wave of green-and-white-clad Spartans, many of whom had already started in on the beer, milled around the parade route, looking for something else to do. Some found their way into the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.

If any tipsy Spartans made it up the vertiginous Zaha Hadid staircase to the second floor, they would have found themselves face to face with a wall manifesto from the Colectivo Acciones de Arte, a group of dissident Chilean artists in the 1980s.

It reads: “We believe that art is not a peaceful activity nor is it an ornament in anyone’s bourgeois life.”

People who shun the Broad and the art inside of it are unlikely to have a change of heart this fall. The museum’s grand first level gallery is featuring a stark array of ghostly furniture (“Metamorphic,” by Katrín Sigurdardóttir) and a collection of scale model houses that evoke childhood memory and physical decay (“Unbuilt Residences,” by the same artist). The upper level is a virtual cell block of artists who worked under the heel of Latin American dictators in the 1970s and ‘80s — grainy and gripping images of bodies hanging, writhing, protesting, persisting in the face of official violence.

Like so many things the Broad has done, the exhibits promise a grim afternoon at first glance, but if you stick with them, they get into your mind the way no eye candy (or ornament) does.

But are people sticking with it? In the midst of the Broad Museum’s search for its third director since it opened in 2012, many followers of the Broad, including members of the museum’s advisory board, think the time is ripe for a sea change. Calls for more community involvement, a wider variety of art, exhibits with broader appeal and an overall friendlier face have all been heard.

Broad Museum assistant curator Steven Bridges said some of these changes are already in the works. In the coming year, the museum’s carapace of contemporary art will crack a bit more, with more visible evidence of the former Kresge Art Gallery’s historic collection. The Broad is also planning to build ties with other regional museums, including Flint and Detroit, for mutual loans of art.

But in the longer run, the Broad’s next director will face the same tasks as the first two: setting realistic goals, balancing visitor appeal with challenging content, and, as always, tamping down a widespread, lingering public hostility to the avant-garde building and its contents. With the right leadership, the MSU community hopes the Broad can do all of these things and still challenge and educate its visitors.

Post-ballyhoo era

It’s been a bad run of luck at the top for the Broad. Michael Rush, the museum’s passionate founding director, ran the museum like a cool teacher who would grab you by the collar and insist, “You’ve got to see this.” Rush brought an unorthodox eye and a glow of fun to the job, but he died in March 2015, three years after it opened. Much of his last year was spent in and out of cancer treatment.

His successor, Marc-Olivier Wahler, left the museum in 2018, to be closer to his wife, who was seriously ill.

The Broad’s innovative and impact-minded first curator, Alison Gass, left the Broad in 2011, taking with her a lively colleague, Tammy Fortin, who filled the museum with splashy and unique events. Another charismatic and approachable curator, Caitlin Doherty, succeeded Gass to become curator at the Broad from 2015 to 2017. Doherty said she went “half way around the world” (from Ireland) to work with Rush, but he died two months into Doherty’s tenure. She left the Broad in 2017 to become director of Jacksonville’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Wahler did a lot in his short tenure as director, from his magic-themed “Transformed Man” exhibit to the museum’s first beachhead across Grand River Avenue, the ArtLab across the street. The ArtLab’s creative programs have been well attended, boosting the museum’s attendance figures by 22 percent.

It’s hard to find anyone involved with the Broad who is willing to go into Olivier’s shortcomings, but the soft-spoken Swiss intellectual seemed to operate most comfortably on the rarefied plane of art theory.

The online job description for the new director hints at what MSU officials feel has been lacking at the top. It calls for someone who excels at “being at ease with people and accepting the public demands made upon a leader with visibility in the community.”

Alan Ross, a member of the director search committee, went further. He said the museum needs nothing less than a “game changer.” Ross is also chairman of the museum’s advisory board.

Ross calls himself an “outsider” on the 10-person search committee because he’s not affiliated with MSU. He’s the owner and president of Livonia-based Gallagher Fire Equipment, an avid art collector and a donor to the Broad.

“The community is a very important part of this museum, and it has to be, and it’s going to be, and I’m going to make sure the next person understands that,” Ross said.

The ballyhoo that the Broad itself would be a “game changer” for the region, that Lansing would have to build a bigger airport (something architect Edwin Chan, a former partner of Frank Gehry, actually said to an MSU official in 2012) has long since faded. What’s left is a shiny box with unknown, unplumbed potential.

Ross said the museum is doing “all right,” with attendance that’s close to that of other university-held museums, but it’s still not living up to its potential.

“It’s underperforming because we need a leader that understands an academic institution and a community at the same time,” Ross said. “Michael Rush was a great guy. The second one — great interview skills. But maybe we didn’t interview enough.”

Some top players at the Broad hint the Wahler was too heady and didn’t wear out enough shoe leather in the community.

“We’ve had a tendency to hire curators that want to display their creations, in terms of exhibits,” Lansing attorney Jack Davis said. Davis is a longtime Lansing arts patron and a Broad Museum advisory committee member. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but this person should also have management skills and an idea of how to appeal to the public.”

Susie Brewster, a member of Broad’s advisory committee, has been a staunch supporter since the days of the Broad’s predecessor, the Kresge Art Gallery. “They’re going to look for someone that’s more on the director and manager side than the curator side,” Brewster said. “Someone that’s really interested in running a museum and being a people person.”

Steven Bridges, who is on the search committee, considers the search for a director to be more than a head hunt.

“Who do we serve?” Bridges asked. “There’s the university, the local community and mid-Michigan and beyond. Part of this is thinking about what kind of institution this is, the contours of the collection, the programs we have, and what it means to be a university art museum.”

Bridges said a “strong leader” is a must.
“This is a dynamic place,” he said. “You can’t have a building like this and do the same old same old.”

A search firm, Koya Leadership Partners, has already surveyed the museum staff and advisory board and will soon come up with a pool of candidates. The search committee will narrow that group down in two rounds of interviews and make a final recommendation to newly minted MSU President Samuel L. Stanley. Candidates’ names will probably have to be kept under wraps, especially if they already have jobs.

There is no timetable for the search. Three members of the search committee said exactly the same thing: “It will take as long as it takes.”

Numbers game

One of the most frequent responses visitors get from Broad Museum guides is “there are no right answers.”

Even so quantifiable a question as whether the Broad is underperforming or not is a subjective inquiry.

The question is, what do you compare it to?

The museum started strong, drawing 98,151 visitors in the calendar year 2013, its first full year of operations. In the heat of opening year hoopla, it was easy to swallow an oft-cited 2012 study by the Anderson Economic Group that predicted 150,000 visitors a year. (For a little perspective, the Detroit Institute of Arts draws over 600,000 visitors a year; New York’s MOMA tops 2.5 million.)

But the next year, 2014, attendance at the Broad declined to 61,609.

The Broad isn’t an outlier, though, especially when compared to other university-owned art museums. The Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, where former Broad Museum curator Ali Gass is director, had about 55,000 visitors in 2018, and the Block Museum at Northwestern had about 47,000. Another museum comparable to the Broad is Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which had about 76,000 visitors in fiscal year 2017.

By comparison, in the calendar year 2018, the Broad had 70,040 visitors, including about 8,000 visitors to the Broad’s ArtLab facility across Grand River Avenue from the museum, according to spokeswoman Morgan Butts.

Megaplex

One of the most popular works the Broad has displayed over the years was 2013’s “Evolution (Megaplex),” by Marco Brambilla, a stereoscopic 3-D phantasmagoria of pop culture iconography, from “Star Wars” and “Mad Max” to “The Godfather” and “Idiocracy.”

In contrast to the austere work now on display at the Broad, “Evolution” gave you the works — Rambo wielding a machine gun, Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea, dozens of explosions, fights and disasters, all stuffed in one apocalyptic canvas that called to mind Hieronymus Bosch by way of Marvel Studios.

Its popularity lays out the museum’s predicament in a nutshell. Brambilla seemed to be making fun of the idiotic circus outside the museum walls, the crude excesses that turn people on and get them off their sofas. The irony is that it did draw people to the Broad — multiple times, in many cases. “Have you seen the thing downstairs at the Broad?” was a frequently heard query all over town.

Was Brambilla mocking the audience, tweaking the museum, or just diving into pop culture hip deep? You know what’s coming — there are no right answers.

Jack Davis is a bit baffled by the hand-wringing over what direction the Broad should take. His response is eminently practical — the museum has several rooms and galleries, after all.

“This is not complicated,” Davis said. “It’s a small museum, but we can have galleries dedicated to one concept and other galleries dedicated to another concept.”

Davis approves of the challenging and high-concept exhibits featured at the Broad.

“But it shouldn’t occupy the full museum,” he said. “There has to be another element, which has art that is enthusiastically appreciated by the general public.”

For the Broad, that means dipping into the former Kresge Art Gallery, an 8,000-piece collection spanning many time periods and cultures that was absorbed into the Broad Museum collection in 2012.

Davis said several pieces in the former Kresge collection, including works by Dali and Warhol, should be “emphasized.”

“I’m sure there are 20 to 30 pieces in the Kresge collection that would be enthusiastically received,” he said.

Broad spokeswoman Morgan Butts said the museum staff is listening.

“People are consistently asking about the former Kresge,” Butts said. Eight years after the museum opened, Broad Museum guides still field questions about the Kresge from surprised visitors, despite the clear message Zaha Hadid’s radical architecture sends to approaching humanoids.

Those same people are surprised to learn 10 percent of the former Kresge collection has already been on view at the Broad, either in the Collection Gallery downstairs, the ArtLab across Grand River Avenue, or to supplement an exhibit of contemporary art, according to Butts. “The major museum standard is about 5 percent,” she said.

Butts said the museum staff is looking at moving the collection gallery to a more prominent upstairs gallery.

“We are trying to reach people that are really invested in this organization, and do right by them,” she said.

Ross said there’s nothing set in stone that the Broad be devoted to contemporary art.

“A lot of people were focused on a contemporary art museum,” Ross said. “I just don’t see anything documenting, saying this is all that it is.”

Someone must have gotten that message in 2012, when the museum opened, but exactly why Kresge had to die for the Broad to live is a question MSU has never answered.

Eli Broad, an MSU alumnus who amassed a huge fortune in homebuilding and finance, was enlisted in 2008 for help with a plan to expand the Kresge Gallery with triple the space. Instead, he stunned the MSU community by ponying up $27 million for a completely new museum, the largest gift in MSU’s history.

Whether Broad himself stipulated that the museum be devoted to contemporary art, or whether he didn’t have to say it, that is what happened.

Even the museum’s advisory board doesn’t know how the contemporary scheme came to supplant the Kresge expansion concept, according to Davis.

“I’ve asked the MSU administration that question many times, and we have not heard one way or the other,” Davis said.

While Davis envisions shows in separate galleries, others would like to see the Broad pursue inventive ways to blend historic and contemporary art. Judith Stoddart, associate provost for university collections and arts initiatives, is overseeing the search for a new director at the Broad and leading a campuswide drive to get staff, faculty and students more engaged in art. Stoddart pointed to one of the Broad’s current exhibits, “The Scholar’s Garden,” occupying the museum’s lower level Collection Gallery, as a perfect example of the museum’s unique potential to blend old and new art.

Working in a limited space, curator Bridges devised an inventive, garden-like braiding of Japanese landscape paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries, exquisite ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the old Kresge collection and more recent works from a 2013 Broad exhibit of Chinese contemporary art.

The exhibit is a seamless blend of surprise, beauty and comfort, suspended in a web of thematic, stylistic and historical connections. 

“It’s a delicate balance,” Stoddart said. “Finding that sweet spot between things that are new and challenging, and presenting them in a way that can be engaging, and presenting a historical mix that brings people in in a different way — it has to do both.”

But it’s in the basement and many visitors don’t even know it’s there.

Bridges said more exhibits like “Scholar’s Garden” are in the works for the Broad’s main galleries — “trans-historical conversations” that would use pieces from the former Kresge collection along with new art and, possibly, art loaned from other museums in a “major, significant way.”

“People want to see more of the collection and we hear that,” Bridges said.

Far from treating such exhibits as a concession to popular tastes, Bridges relishes braiding the old and the new and, in fact, sees no real difference between the two.

“Everything that’s been created was contemporary at one time,” Bridges said.

“'Scholar’s Garden,'” Bridges said, offers a “glimpse into the ways we’re interested in thinking about the collection,” only on a larger scale.

“It’s exciting for me as a curator,” he said. “We have such a wonderful collection. We can find new and interesting ways to dig deeper.”

Teaching and learning

Recently, Jordan Sutton took her 2-year-old daughter not to the Discovery Zone or Chuck E. Cheese but to the Kirstin Sigurdardóttir exhibit at the Broad.

Scale models of crumbling houses, purposely damaged to varying degrees, sounds like a gimmick when you describe it to people. But in person, “Unbuilt Residences” summons up a surprising rush of emotion. It’s mortality in miniature, and it’s hard to shake off.

“We both took a lot away from that,” Sutton said. “For her, she maybe thinks of it more in terms of dollhouses, but also noticing the different conditions, the destruction — she thought it was really interesting.”

At 40, Sutton is among the youngest members of the museum’s advisory board and values the teaching potential of contemporary art.

Before the Broad came into existence, Sutton was a board member of the Kresge and helped raise money for its planned expansion, but she embraced the 2012 pivot to contemporary art.

“Change of any kind can be difficult,” she said. “Anyone that isn’t visiting the museum to learn from what’s happening there is missing out in a way.”

She’s heard all the talk about how the Broad needs to build bridges to the community, especially former Kresge members and visitors.

“But at some point,” she said, “it becomes the job of the people on the other side to have the openness to visit the Broad, as the Broad, without lamenting on the past.”

Sutton didn’t mention the Latin American dissident art upstairs at the Broad this fall, but her philosophy recalled the motto of the Colectivo Acciones de Arte — that art is much more than “ornament.”

“What’s different for a lot of people is that most of us might look at a piece of art and picture it on a wall in our home and use that somehow as a criteria to evaluate things,” she said. “But for me it’s more about learning.”

Before she worked at the Broad, Morgan Butts taught art history. One of her favorite parts of the job was asking students to tell her what they hated.

“It takes time to break down those barriers when you are so afraid of answering incorrectly,” she said. “We have the privilege of presenting things that are far more complicated. There are a lot of opinions and they’re all valid and it makes things more interesting. If we can get comfortable with that we’ll have a lot more fun.”

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