At 5200 Woodward Ave., a 110-minute drive from Hillsdale, you’ll discover a wonderful example of the Motor City’s illustrious heritage, whose marble façade is inscribed with the words ‘dedicated by the people of Detroit to the knowledge and enjoyment of art.’ Indeed, I’d venture to say most of you are well aware of the financial woes that grip the once grand, industrious city that is Detroit, Mich., but, aside from the occasional Tiger’s game or airport shuttle, you’ve likely found no reason to visit the city’s best kept secret.
The Detroit Institute of Arts differs from many museums of fine art, the most obvious factor being the all-encompassing approach that it takes with acquisitions. An old-guard institution, the DIA was established in 1885 by a conglomerate of prominent industrialists with a heroic vision: to create a world class, encyclopedic collection of art for the people of Detroit.
The encyclopedic museum by definition is an institution that actively seeks out works of art from every culture, medium, and stylistic period. Not surprisingly, only the wealthiest and most well-heeled cities were capable of acquiring masterpieces on this scale, with comparable institutions few and far between. New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts are the “crown jewel” institutions in this category, but Detroit, along with Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, are considered by scholars to be the most important and comprehensive collections in the United States.
I’d advise you to dedicate an entire day to the museum if you intend to make the most of your visit. The Detroit Institute of Arts is the fifth largest museum in the country, boasting over 100 galleries with 6000 works of art on view at any given time. The American wing is the third most important collection in the United States (trailing New York and Boston, respectively), the collection of Italian pictures, sculpture, and decorative arts ranks as one of the best in the western hemisphere, while the Dutch and Flemish galleries evince over 130 years of what one might call an “institutional obsession” with the region.
As one might expect, old master pictures are a strong suit of this institution. You may recall Jan Van Eyck and his contribution of oil paint to Western art. In spite of his immense reputation and popularity, less than 30 odd works by the artist have survived, making Van Eyck one of the rarest masters in the history of art — more scarce than a coveted canvas of Johannes Vermeer or a complete, firmly attributed work in oil by Leonardo da Vinci – the DIA’s “Saint Jerome in His Study” is a magnificent example by the fifteenth century Flemish superstar.
The boar’s head tureen from the Orléans-Penthièvre table service, as crafted by the legendary French silversmith Thomas Germain, is one of the most ambitious and fantastical works ever wrought in silver and one of the few masterpieces to survive the French Revolution.
Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” is an iconic image that you’re bound to instantly recognize, possibly as an artistic pendant to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” or Freud’s notes on the subconscious.
Additional objects of exceptional quality and provenance in the European galleries include Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s model for the chair of Saint Peter in Vatican City, Peter Breughel the Elder’s “Wedding Dance,” Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” and Caravaggio’s “Martha and Mary Magdalene,” and Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Meeting of David and Abigail.”
Modern and contemporary art at the DIA has always been particularly well represented. Van Gogh’s self-portrait of 1887 was acquired by the museum only 32 years after the artist’s death and at a time when his work was not widely appreciated in America. This would also be the first Van Gogh to enter a public collection. And later, due to the generosity of Detroit’s trustees, the museum would later acquire three additional, captivating works by the artist. Diego Rivera’s fresco cycle on the Detroit industry is world renown and the artist’s singular masterpiece. James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s “Falling Rocket: Nocturne in Black and Gold” can never be loaned as per the stipulation of the bequest, and yet remains an early touchstone in the development and public appreciation of modern art, similar in its cultural and aesthetic repercussions to effects of Edouard Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” and Gustave Courbet’s “Burial at Ornans” in the Paris Salons.
Not surprisingly, Detroit’s standing on the international stage is highly praised and well respected as an institution of fine art, often collaborating with the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the National Gallery, London for exhibitions.
For a number of reasons, I am not obliged to reveal the works of art, the country of origin, or the name of the lending institution, but I can say that one very famous museum in Europe will be lending several masterworks to the DIA that have never traveled beyond the city limits, much less the country or the continent, since they were made nearly five centuries ago. Few institutions worldwide wield this level of borrowing power, and Detroit happens to be one of them. In fact, I am working with the Chief Curator to prepare and execute a monograph exhibition on one of America’s most beloved artists, a show which also proves to be one of groundbreaking scholarship on a man widely published, and thus continues a long standing tradition in Detroit of cultivating academic inquiry and a popular interest in fine art.
In spite of Motown’s municipal meltdown, the DIA is still going strong, open six days a week, altogether clean, safe, and dirt cheap. For a museum of its size and caliber, the $8 admission fee is less than half that of Chicago Art Institute and 1/3 of the Metropolitan Museum. As someone who knows museums well, I guarantee that neither your eye nor your budget will be disappointed. It’s about time you paid Picasso a visit (after all, he’s got his own gallery).
Garret Swanson ‘12 works as a curator at the Detroit Instute of Arts