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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