This article, supplemented with additional images,  is excerpted from "Detroit: Stories" edited by Lynn Crawford (lcrawford(at) , published by  and available from the Museum of Contemprorary Art Detroit.

Where’s Detroit in the “New” Detroit Institute of Arts?

Mikolowski portrait of Nawrocki

by Dennis Alan Nawrocki
(Portrait: Ann Mikolowski)

Shined, buffed, polished, and scrubbed inside and out, its innards nipped and tucked, the Detroit Institute of Arts has stepped proudly back into the limelight.  The majority of national and local commentators who weighed in on the reinstallation of the entire collection (some 5,000 objects in all) were decidedly positive and encouraging, and, voting with their feet, Detroiters seemed to agree, swarming the museum for months after the razzle-dazzle of the opening festivities in November 2007.

But does the limelight extend to contemporary artists and especially to Detroit artists, who look to the museum (and other Detroit area venues) to acknowledge and highlight their work?  Here the answer is iffier. From the Metropolitan Museum in New York to the Art Institute of Chicago, all encyclopedic museums, composed as they are of multiple departments vying for display space, evince a degree of commitment to contemporary art that is sporadic and uncertain. The representation of living artists, whether local or regional, waxes and wanes, depending on the biases of administrative and curatorial staff, the fluctuating dynamics of audience and collectors, and the shifting priorities and tenuous availability of funding sources. 
Detroit Institute of Arts


Detroit is no exception, and the fortunes of regional and national contemporary artists in the Motor City have boomed, cooled, and revived like the auto industry itself.  The dire, institution-threatening budget crunch and ensuing layoffs in the early 1990s, the in and out shuffle of modern curators (three between 1968 and  1982), the absence of a modern art chair between 1982 and 1986, the several, short-lived on-again, off-again series of Michigan artists shows, the ongoing space constraints (permanent collection galleries sometimes deinstalled to make way for traveling exhibitions), and the six slumberous years of the museum-wide renovations that persisted from 2001 to 2007 made for anxious, unnerving intervals for both the museum and its advocacy of modern/contemporary artists. 

Arguably, the history of contemporary art at the DIA began in 1968 with the appointment of Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr., the first curator of contemporary art, a saga that culminates forty years later with Rebecca Hart and Mark Rosenthal, the duo currently in charge of contemporary art. The charismatic Wagstaff, who came to Detroit from curatorial stints in East Coast institutions, possessed an adventurous spirit and up-to-date knowledge of contemporary art practice. Though his tenure here was a comparatively short three years, he energized and sometimes alarmed the city, with both avant-garde exhibitions and ancillary events that galvanized the art community. Notoriously, in 1971 he invited earth artist Michael Heizer to execute his
M. Heizer's Dragged Mass
Dragged Mass on the DIA’s north lawn. As a bulldozer hauled a 35-ton block of granite 100 feet across a wet early spring lawn, a small mound of earth formed and remained in situ for a time, galling evidence, to some, of the stone’s passage.

Perhaps more importantly for the future of Detroit artists, Wagstaff also took a keen interest in the artistic ferment swirling about in the so-called Cass Corridor just a few blocks away from the museum. Named after Cass Avenue, which runs through the campus of Wayne State University, the area was home and studio to many artists and to the nascent Willis Gallery, where avant-garde Detroit artists began to exhibit their art work in 1971. Indeed, the long-lived Friends of Modern Art (now the Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art), founded in 1931 as the museum’s first auxiliary support group, attended the opening of the Willis en masse. Supportive of both the national and local scene, Wagstaff oversaw the inclusion of Detroiters in both the exhibition and acquisition initiatives of the DIA. Some of the works by Lynda Benglis, Donald Judd,
s\George segal
 George Segal, and Andy Warhol currently on display in the spiffy renovated galleries devoted to contemporary art are there in part due to Wagstaff and the financial support of the Friends. Fittingly, two found-object relief sculptures by Cass Corridor artists
G. Newton
Gordon Newton and

 Robert Sestok, though not purchased during Wagstaff’s tenure, keep company with
benglis Planet
 Benglis’ 1969 latex floor piece Planet, acquired the year of its making.
All three embody the post-minimalist aesthetic rampant at the turn of the 1960s into the ‘70s.
After Wagstaff’s departure, departmental momentum was maintained by Frank Kolbert and Susanne Hilberry, who organized “12 Statements: Beyond the 60s” (which included Michael Luchs and Newton) and “Eva Hesse,” both in 1972.  Sculptures by Richard Hunt, Tony Smith (whose Gracehoper was commissioned by Wagstaff and the Friends), and Mark di Suvero entered the collection during their tenure.
John Hallmark Neff
Wagstaff’s successor, John H. Neff,
 brought his own verve to the DIA from 1974 to 78. His “American Artists: A New Decade” introduced the work of Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman, John Mason, and Keith Sonnier, among others, to Detroit. Neff was also interested in the region’s developing art scene and initiated a series of exhibitions titled “Works in Progress.” These shows featured the work of such Michigan artists as Michelle Oka Doner, Michael Hall, Germaine Keller, Aris Koutroulis, Jim Pallas, and Nancy Pletos. Equally significant was the museum’s acquisition of representative artworks by area artists Steve Foust,
Goodman-The Cat Approaches
 Brenda Goodman, Luchs, and Newton, along with nationally known Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Barnett Newman, Claes Oldenburg, Jacqueline Winsor, and Hale Woodruff.

In 1980, “Kick Out the Jams: Detroit’s Cass Corridor 1963–1977” memorably filled the museum’s special exhibition galleries with the audacious, experimental art of a loosely affiliated group of twenty-two Motor City artists who had first come to the attention of Wagstaff. Representing the apex of interest in “Detroit’s first true avant-garde,” the show was co-organized by
Mary Jane Jacob                                                                                           Jay Belloli
 Mary Jane Jacob, associate curator of modern art, who had joined the department under Neff, and Jay Belloli,
 who became curator of modern art in 1978, just six months after Neff’s departure. A number of Belloli’s acquisitions—by Carl Andre, Scott Burton, Hesse, and Dennis Oppenheim—are currently on view in the inaugural installation. Belloli left in 1982, but it would be four years before his curatorial position was filled.
                         Davira S. Taragin,
In the interim, Davira S. Taragin, curator of twentieth-century decorative arts, oversaw “Michigan Artists 80–81,” the last of the periodic, sweeping roundups (and mammoth organizational feats) of work by Michigan artists that the museum had been sponsoring since 1910. In honor of the museum’s centennial year, 1983, a mosaic mural was commissioned from Romare Bearden, the nationally renowned African American artist, and accompanied by an exhibition, “Romare Bearden: Origins and Progressions.” Taragin brought into the collection works by, among others, Diane Carr, Dale Chihuly, Richard DeVore, Charles Eames, Richard Estes, Gerhardt Knodel, Aris Koutroulis, Nam June Paik, Judy Pfaff, Joel Shapiro, Frank Stella, Robert Thompson, Beatrice Wood, and Joe Zajac. Taragin’s successor as decorative arts curator, Bonita LaMarche Fike, was pivotal in building the DIA’s expansive representation of contemporary studio crafts, a liberal sampling of which is presently on view.
             Jan Van der Marck
When Jan Van der Marck finally arrived in 1986, the Ongoing Michigan Artists Program (OMAP) had just been initiated by museum director Samuel Sachs as a long overdue replacement for the Works in Progress series as well as a formalization of the
                                        MaryAnn Wilkinson
“Ongoing Works” shows that MaryAnn Wilkinson,
 who joined the DIA in 1984, had been curating. Her first show featured Michiganian Pi Benio. Under the direction of Van der Marck and coordinated by assistant curator Mary B. Stephenson, the OMAP series (later simply called the Michigan Artists Program) continued into the early 1990s and featured, among others, Carol Ann Carter, Tyree Guyton, Luchs, Tom Phardel,
 and Gilda Snowden. Van der Marck also organized an exhibition of the collection of W. Hawkins Ferry, a perspicacious and staunch supporter of modern art, who had piloted the Friends of Modern Art from 1964 to 1985 and gifted the museum with its core holdings of 1950s and ‘60s art (the decades that mark the starting point of the DIA’s contemporary art collection).

In 1995, Van der Marck, with Wilkinson and Stephenson, organized “Interventions,” an extensive show in which forty-five Michigan artists inserted their art within the museum’s permanent collection, in a gallery of their choosing. Paintings displayed by Peter Williams and Ed Fraga were subsequently acquired for the museum’s permanent collection. Other artists added during Van der Marck’s tenure, the longest incumbency—nine years—of the four decades under review here, include Benny Andrews, David Barr, Douglas Bulka, Daniel Buren, Enzo Cucchi, Gilbert & George, Guyton, Bradley Jones, John Keane, Allan McCollum, Stephen Magsig, Francois Morellet, Elizabeth Murray, Beverly Pepper, Lucio Pozzi, James Rosenquist, Julian Schnabel, Donald Sultan, Haim Steinbach, Ursula von Rydisvard, and Joseph Wesner.

Lamentably, two instances of censorship in 1999 tarnished the sheen of the DIA’s commitment to contemporary art

. Jef Bourgeau’s one-person show “Art Until Now” was summarily cancelled and

 Kara Walker’s etching and aquatint A Means to an End: A Shadow Drama in Five Acts (1995)
was withdrawn from a show mounted by the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, his because of its ostensibly risqué imagery, hers for what some deemed the demeaning portrayal of African Americans.  One might note here that the extensive modern and contemporary holdings of the Prints, Drawings, and Photographs division are essential to the elucidation of contemporary art at the DIA.  Its acquisitions of comparatively affordable examples of artists of the moment ensures a representation of artists, like Kara Walker, who for one reason or another may not be acquirable by the modern, contemporary, or African American areas; and the department’s “Dawoud Bey: Detroit Portraits” in 2004 was a notable highlight of the lean, gray years of the museum’s prolonged refurbishment.  

In 2001, a sizable show featuring a number of area artists, “Artists Take on Detroit: Projects for the Tricentennial,” celebrated the city’s 300th birthday.  Organized by Wilkinson, appointed curator of modern and contemporary art in 1995 after Van der Marck’s departure that year, and Rebecca Hart, assistant curator, the show comprised a cast of Detroiters—Guyton, Hall, Scott Hocking, Clinton Snider, and Wesner—in addition to ex-pat Detroiter Mike Kelley and several non Detroiters—Petah Coyne for one. Wilkinson also mounted a one-person show of Newton in 2001, which she selected from Detroit collector James Duffy’s substantial gift of the local artist’s work, and oversaw the year-long placement of Yoko Ono’s Freight Train on the museum’s south lawn in 2003. Glenn Ligon,

Charles McGee
, Bill Viola, and Betye Saar also enjoyed one-person shows during her time as head of the department.

One of Wilkinson’s singular accomplishments was the wholesale reconfiguration and reinstallation of the modern and contemporary suite of galleries in 1998. Not only was the art re-hung in fresh and engaging juxtapositions, but all the floors were repainted white to signal the dramatic shift into the twentieth century that occurred the moment a visitor entered the galleries. For a time, it seemed as if patrons were as exercised about the white paint on the parquet floors as earlier critics had been vociferous about the gouged lawn left behind by Heizer in 1971. Wilkinson also dedicated an entire gallery to work by Detroit artists from the DIA collections as well as integrating work by additional area artists within other galleries. In the Detroit room one could also listen to recorded poems and statements by selected local poets and writers. Among Wilkinson’s prime acquisitions during her eight-year tenure were works by Alighiero e Boetti, Jim Chatelain, Ed Clark, Beverly Fishman, Nancy Graves, Anselm Kiefer, Yayoi Kusama, Glenn Ligon, Donald Lipski, Heather McGill, Ann Mikolowski, Richard Nonas, Albert Paley, Jim Pallas, Howardina Pindell, Martin Puryear, Sharon Que, Doris Salcedo, Hiraki Sawa, Lorna Simpson, Kiki Smith, William T. Williams, and Joe Zucker. Four portraits of Detroit’s Cass Corridor artists by Nancy Mitchnick entered the collection as well.

The establishment of the GM Center for African American Art in 2000 and the arrival of curator and head Valerie J. Mercer in 2001 accelerated the flow of contemporary art through the museum’s portals. Her first accession was a 1988 Robert Colescott painting, briskly followed by examples of the art of Elizabeth Catlett, Melvin Edwards, Alvin Loving, Saar, Vincent Smith, Thermon Statom, Kehinde Wiley, and others.  

Subsequently, two-thirds of the museum closed for renovations in 2001 and the curatorial staff was reorganized in 2003. As a result, the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art (formerly the Department of Modern Art, then the Department of Twentieth-Century Art) became separate entities: modern art to 1950 was subsumed within the Department of European Art, and Contemporary Art became an independent, stand-alone department headed by Hart. Finally, in 2007, the renamed James Pearson Duffy Department of Contemporary Art emerged under the leadership of Hart, now associate curator, and Mark Rosenthal, adjunct curator. Artworks by Ghada Amer, Howard Ben Tre, Ross Bleckner, Glen Booth, Alexander Calder, Grace Hartigan, Jess, Kathryn Brackett Luchs, Mary Roehm, Yinka Shonibare, Shahzia Sikander, Sarah Sze, Toshiko Takaezu, and Ben Vautier represent some of the nascent department’s initial accessions.
DIA Prentis Court


When the “new” DIA reopened, the Duffy department offered as its first special exhibition, recent paintings of Julie Mehretu, an artist with deep familial connections to Michigan. Born in Ethiopia, Mehretu grew up in East Lansing and graduated from Kalamazoo College before settling in New York a number of years ago. “Julie Mehretu: City Sitings” featured a celebrated contemporary artist with Michigan roots, whose show of thirteen canvases included five created specifically for the DIA display. In one bold stroke the department reasserted its commitment to contemporary artists who, though they may now live elsewhere, maintain a close connection to the state.

In fulfilling its other mission, namely the presentation of the permanent collection, the Duffy department integrates a modest number of area artists within the galleries of the north wing. There Michigan artists are presented side by side with both their chronological and aesthetic/thematic peers. Robert Sestok’s Assemblage, a relief sculpture composed of salvaged elements, Gordon Newton’s Satellite Delay, also built of found items, and Jim Pallas’ Firefly: Portrait of the Artist with Cosmic Bubble, assembled with electronic components, keep company with Lynda Benglis’ sprawling Planet and

Yayoi Kusama
’s Silver Shoes (twenty-three in all) bursting with phallic protuberances. In this thematic room, captioned “What Can Be Art,” all five artists advance idiosyncratic alternatives to the Pop and minimalist vocabularies that dominated their artistic coming of age—examples of which are on view in adjacent galleries.

And in a nearby gallery devoted to the theme of “Identity, Not Portraiture,” Heather McGill (longtime head of sculpture at Cranbrook Academy of Art) and Newton (once again) cohabit with Elizabeth Murray, Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah, and Kiki Smith. Their works and others on view address aspects of human identity—gender, role, race—rather than specific, recognizable personas.

Yet another gallery takes on “The Times, Not History.” Here the selected artists tackle prickly, topical issues rather than those tidily interred in the past. Works by the German Anselm Kiefer, Colombian Doris Salcedo, and New Yorker Ross Bleckner go head to head with former Detroiter Mike Kelley, whose scathing commentary on the first Bush administration, Carnival Time, is installed here.  A stalwart Detroiter who retains strong ties to the area, Kelley lives in California but grew up in Westland, a suburb of Detroit.

Another work on view in the Kelley et al. gallery, one of the largest spaces in this suite of galleries, is a gigantic and spectacular 2007 work by Kehinde Wiley, a young African American artist. Titled Officer of the Hussars, it depicts a young black man in casual contemporary attire astride a huge white stallion, the pose of horse and rider purloined from Gericault’s 1812 Mounted Officer of the Imperial Guard. Its appropriateness to the gallery’s overriding theme—today’s news, not yesterday’s—is readily apparent, but one wonders about its placement here, scale and relevance notwithstanding. For, just a few steps away, the museum has devoted four galleries to African American art, three of which present numerous examples of contemporary black art, including one—captioned “Expressing a Political and Social Consciousness”—that also tackles current topics. Artworks by

Robert Colescott
, Melvin Edwards, Tyree Guyton, Howardina Pindell,

Peter Williams, and others are displayed in that gallery.

As it happens, the museum’s GM Center for African American Art also encompasses contemporary art, and there nationally known artists—Colescott, Sam Gilliam, Richard Hunt, Glenn Ligon, Betye Saar, Lorna Simpson—and Detroit area artists,

including Guyton, Alvin Loving, Allie McGhee,
 Gilda Snowden, and Peter Williams, are exhibited side by side in three contiguous galleries. Charles McGee, dean and elder statesman of Detroit artists, is represented by one work displayed in the contemporary African American galleries and one installed in the Duffy contemporary galleries. Also germane to the issue of placement is Snowden’s mixed media assemblage Monument, which would harmonize aesthetically with Newton and Sestok’s Cass Corridor relief constructions in the “What Can Be Art” installation, given that movement’s formative impact on her early sculpture. One senses that in the future African American works may slip and slide from one gallery to another depending on the exigencies of scale, space, or theme—both now and as the DIA contemporary art collection continues to expand.

Overall, in the thirteen galleries identified as contemporary (subtracting one African American room that introduces the Harlem Renaissance and mid-century artists under the rubric “New Art for a New Self-Awareness” but including the densely installed “Pushing the Boundaries of Craft” section devoted to the revolutions in glass, wood, fiber, and ceramics), some eighteen or nineteen regional art makers can be counted, three of whom, Guyton, Newton, and McGee, are represented by two works each. Six of these exhibitors are women. Considering that approximately 190 objects are on view, this constitutes a ten percent representation of area artists, arguably about the norm in encyclopedic museums.

But given the number of works in the collection by Detroit and Michigan artists it seems a bit on the skimpy side. Waiting in the wings for the incarnation of fresh themes or, perhaps just as tantalizingly, for the rotation of alternative artist-exemplars of

ongoing themes are a bevy of possibilities, including at the very least Cay Bahnmiller, David Barr,

 Diane Carr, John Egner, Ed Fraga, Steve Foust, Brenda Goodman, Sheldon Iden, Gerhardt Knodel, Brian Kremer, Michael Luchs, Nancy Mitchnick, George Ortman, Ellen Phelan, John Piet, Sharon Que, G. Alden Smith, Nelson Smith, Carol Steen,

John Strand, Lois Teicher, Jonathan Waite, Robert Wilbert,
 and Joe Zajac, not to mention numerous others. Although saying so doesn’t ease the sting, just as many non-regional contemporary artists hover on the sidelines. None of the following talents are on view in the initial hang: Magadelena Abakanowicz, Arman, Dawoud Bey, Harry Bertoia, Petah Coyne, Alan Davie, Leonardo Drew, Jane Hammond, Joan Mitchell, Francois Morellet, Louise Nevelson, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Nam June Paik, Lucio Pozzi, James Rosenquist, Alan Saret, Joel Shapiro, Jacques Villegle, Bill Viola, Kara Walker, and Jacqueline Winsor. Given the glacial pace of re-hangings in most museums, all artists and art works must at some time or other play the waiting game, and in any case this crush of unexhibited works is not a recent phenomenon. The museum long ago ran out of space for its contemporary holdings and the goal of the just-completed renovation was never to add significant footage to the DIA’s footprint.


Now, some four decades beyond Wagstaff’s salad days in Detroit, contemporary art at the DIA is entering a new era. Ten curatorial teams (counting interim staffs) over that time have introduced exhibitions and accumulated acquisitions, providing a rich and varied aesthetic diet to the populace of Detroit. Sometimes presciently ahead of the curve, sometimes poised at the cutting edge, and sometimes lagging behind it, many laborers in the field of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art have forged a significant legacy. Speed bumps, body blocks, and fallow periods have ensued, but so have curatorial insight and alacrity, as well astute and enlightened patronage, most especially the groundbreaking “Kick Out the Jams” and the public-spirited collaboration between the DIA and the College for Creative Studies that yielded the Josephine F. Ford Sculpture

Garden—which includes Detroit sculptor Michael Hall’s 1972 pink steel Ashtabula
among the eleven sculptures on view. The museum’s premiere of several galleries devoted to contemporary African American art is perhaps more problematic. While this approach, unique among American comprehensive museums, deepens and diversifies the story of recent art, it also flirts with the danger of seeming to isolate these artists from the mainstream in a way more separatist than assimilationist.  It is also true, however, that Detroit is certainly more visibly present in the “new” DIA because of the enhanced representation of African American artistry in a city wherein blacks constitute 85% of the population.

The absence of a gallery devoted to the city’s homegrown “Cass Corridor” art is a sticking point to many, but in a museum that represents the globe, and in a department that represents forty years (and counting) of art, one may have to swallow hard and come to terms with token representation. Detroit is not, of course, alone in paying less than optimum attention to its own. Neither the Art Institute of Chicago nor that city’s Museum of Contemporary Art dedicates galleries to the rowdy, raunchy Chicago-style art-outside-the-mainstream Imagists. Nor for that matter are the 1950s Bay Area figurative artists to be found in solitary splendor within the precincts of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  The recent dust-up over the miniscule representation of women, people of color, and California artists in the 2008 inaugural exhibition at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art lays bare just how heated and raw such debates about who a museum displays continue to be. To expect local prominence on an ongoing basis in an art institution with multiple departments and competing constituencies vying for funds and space to showcase specific interests, whether of Asian, Native American, European, or Greco-Roman origin, is probably naive. Maybe it takes a more targeted institution to fulfill that role.

At this moment in Detroit some of the onus on the DIA to foreground contemporary art expression has been relieved by the recently hatched (2007) Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), a kunsthalle with the expansive spaces needed to display the mural-size paintings, colossal sculptures and sprawling installations of which contemporary artists are so fond (and with no skittishness over the imagery of a Kara Walker).

But that shouldn’t let the DIA off the hook. While its core mission of illuminating art within a world-wide context is unquestioned, the Woodward Avenue linchpin of Detroit’s cultural center must continue to be a vital component, along with viewers, critics, galleries (commercial and non profit), dealers, publications, collectors (who buy from metropolitan area exhibitors as well as from out of state purveyors of art), curators, teachers, art schools, and artists, in forming the critical mass that nourishes a thriving community of living artists.

Dennis Alan Nawrocki

Primary Sources:            
Annual Reports, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1968 – 2006.

Kick Out the Jams: Detroit’s Cass Corridor 1963-1977 (exh. cat.). The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1980.

William Peck, The Detroit Institute of Arts: A Brief History. Founders Society Detroit Institute of Arts, 1991.

The W. Hawkins Ferry Collection (exh. cat.). The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1987.

View My Stats