Excursions: Michigan

Last week I talked about a wonderful conference I attended in Michigan. Today I’ll tell you more about my adventures in Michigan itself.

I spent most of my time in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. With its funky restaurants and eclectic shops, it reminded me of a larger version of Burlington, Vermont, a city I frequented during my days at Shelburne Museum. It’s more than twice the size of Burlington with a population of 100,000 though, so there was a lot to see and do.

The campus itself, at least what I saw of it, is also quite lovely, with lots of old building in a variety of architectural styles. You’ve got plenty of neoclassical facades, of course, as at the art museum, but you’ve also got more eclectic Victorian styles such as Richardsonian Romanesque, as is the case with the Archaeology Department at Newberry Hall. Lake Forest College, my alma mater, has an anthropology department housed in a building similar to this one.

And did I mention there are multiple used bookstores?

As fun as Ann Arbor was to explore, however, the real highlight of my trip outside of the conference itself was my excursion to Detroit to see its Institute of Arts. I hadn’t initially planned on going, but when one of my fellow presenters reminded me it was less than an hour away, I knew I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.

Golly, am I glad I went; what a collection!

One of the salient points of the collection is its fresco cycle from Diego Rivera. Painted between 1932-1933 and commissioned for the museum by Edsel Ford, the cycle depicts modern manufacturing in Detroit, specifically the famed assembly line at the Ford factories. Rivera was fascinated with modern industry and it really shows in this piece, with the artist carefully weaving complex yet legible compositions from steel, rubber, and other modern materials. Rivera being Rivera, there’s also class commentary and critiques of capitalism going on here, as he reflects on both the positive and negative products of modern manufacturing, from pharmaceuticals to poison gas, to workers who become increasingly indistinguishable from the machinery they work.


Given the size of the museum, it has over 65,000 objects, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see everything, but of what I did see, I was impressed. I was really excited to encounter this Charles Sheeler, for instance. While probably best known today for his Precisionist renderings of industrial cityscapes, he also painted several interiors of his historical farmhouse in Bucks County. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and others praised his paintings for embodying a modern interpretation of vernacular America. After only encountering these paintings in photographic form, it was really exciting to see one in person. What struck me, aside from the variety of abstract patterns going on in the rugs and the repetition of shapes in furniture and cast shadows, is the sense of warmth from the painting. He does an excellent job of using reflected light and imperfect brushstrokes as rendered in the some of the rugs to both convey the texture of woven fibers and a sense of invitation. This may be a Precisionist-inspired composition, but it is by no means cold or unfeeling.

The contemporary collections are also outstanding, particularly the contemporary African American material, shown in the bottom image. The same fellow presenter who recommended I check out the museum had suggested this gallery to me, and again, I’m glad I went. The pieces in this gallery all conveyed a variety of complex emotions and experiences, from the grief of losing a loved one to resilience in the face of systemic racism and oppression. Anyone interested in American art, especially contemporary materials, should definitely check out this space.

There’s also plenty of material for more visitors with more historical tastes, as is the case with this Gothic family chapel, brought over from France in the years immediately following WWI. Brandon especially enjoyed this picture when I showed it to him, so if we ever go to Detroit together we’ll definitely be spending some time here.

What’s funny is that I could have worked here at one point. In 2017, when I was still at Roswell and beginning to research graduate programs, one of the curators reached out to me to apply for the Prints and Drawings Curator position, then open at the time. She had seen my CV on the Association of Print Scholars website and contacted me. After thinking it over I went ahead and applied, had a phone interview, and got invited out for an on-site session. I turned it down, however, because the Hurd/Wyeth retrospective I was working on at the time was less than a year from opening and I didn’t want to abandon the project.

In retrospect, I’m glad I went through with the graduate school applications. I’ve no doubt that working at the DIA would be immensely rewarding, but I probably would have also shelved my research on art centers indefinitely and not gone back for my PhD. The great thing about museums, however, is that no position is ever occupied forever, so who knows, maybe our paths will cross again. And if not, it’s definitely a fantastic place to visit and I heartily recommend it.

All in all, this was a great trip, and I got a lot out of it both professionally and personally.

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