The Detroit Institute of Arts

When people ask me why I planned a vacation to Detroit, I think about my night at the DIA:

A Bonjour concert

I do my best to talk about my experience, but it’s hard to describe this setting in words: 1920s Beaux-Arts building, 1930s Diego Rivera murals, and an experimental stringed ensemble from New York led by French expat Florent Ghys. It was everything I’d imagined Detroit could be: cultured and complicated.

Built in 1927, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is a fine example of Detroit’s grand past and it’s one of the few world-class institutions in this city that has maintained its status. The building itself is a beautiful example of twentieth century beaux-arts and the American City Beautiful movement. It’s a symbol of a time when wealthy residents and cities boldly invested in their culture and their future. In the spring,  you might find tulip trees  blooming and the sun shining on manicured lawns.

This is not how most people picture Detroit:

Of course, I immediately fell in love. When we first walked in, my dad and I ate dinner at CaféDIA then settled into our seats in Rivera Court just past the main entrance to the museum. Every Friday night, the DIA exhibits a musical guest for a free live performance. For us, the museum hosted the modern stringed music of Bonjour. In this old stone hall of Diego Rivera murals, the New York chamber music ensemble played Thursday Afternoon and other innovative stringed arrangements.

The museum, in large part funded by the wealth of the automobile industry, has also fiercely defended the Rivera murals which depict faceless humans and infinite assembly lines.

The infinite assembly line and anonymous worker

It’s one of the artist’s greatest surviving works in America and it’s ironic to be associated with the family and fortune of Henry Ford. Ford, the icon of the American automobile revolution and Rivera, a Mexican artist associated with communism and the revolutions from below. The murals are both grand and subversive. In Detroit, they’re perfect.

Today, the future of the DIA is in question. When the filed for bankruptcy, creditors began eyeing the art at the DIA and scheming its potential sale. Everything that is great about this museum also makes it one of the city’s most valuable assets. If all the art were seized and sold, it would certainly be a chilling moment in museum history. What’s incredible about the current spirit of Detroit is a “nothing to lose–nothing to hide” attitude. Unfortunately, in the case of the DIA, the city does have something to lose. The question is whether to hold onto an institution from the past or fully embrace a new and more innovative future.

The future of the DIA is the future of Detroit.

For more, check out my “Places” tab for Detroit.
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