Art Museums Blend Community, Culture, Commerce

Michigan’s art museums – institutions that serve as cultural beacons, community gathering spaces and icons of what modern society values – are working diligently with state officials, key patrons including schools and residents, as well as other cultural organizations, to remain relevant parts of the state’s landscape in terms of tourism, economic impact and creating a civic identity for the region.

Museums, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art in Lansing and others across the state, say they are optimistic about their role in Michigan’s overall environment when it comes to their worth, job creation, local investment, impact on education and entertainment value.

As the economy here and across the nation has grown, so have the endowments, donors and collections of these grand institutions. For example, the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) has seen its total philanthropy increase 15 percent since the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. It also has increased its donor base by 80 percent and increased its corporate partner membership by 48 percent.


The Grand Rapids Art Museum has a permanent collection of more than 6,000 works.


“For the past few years, and even more so as we look forward, we’ve sought opportunities for broader and deeper community engagement through art, educational, and social experiences across generations and cultures,” said GRAM director and CEO Dana Friis-Hansen.

Yet officials at these prestigious institutions also say they are finding their museums at a crossroads. On one side, they have the never-ending challenges associated with wooing new donors, investors and volunteers in a constantly changing economic environment. They also have to work diligently with their social media, marketing and advertising departments to shape public perception of what they offer and what they give back to their communities. Moreover, they are facing regular growing pains, both in terms of size and scope of what they can reasonably do for the crowds of people who visit and the communities where they are based.

Still, the overall environment for Michigan’s art museums – especially after dramatic episodes such as the nation’s Great Recession and Detroit’s sizable municipal bankruptcy – seems to be on an upswing, officials say. The overall goal of bringing people together to enjoy art, music and events is supported, they believe, and the sky’s the limit on what they can to do improve the quality of life among Michigan’s residents.

“Ours has really been a survival story,” said Gene Gargaro, chairman of the board for the Detroit Institute of Arts. “But we’re still standing as one of the great museums in the country. We came through a firestorm that most people said would never happen. But it did.”

Gargaro, along with Gov. Rick Snyder, former DIA Director Graham Beal and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, were key players in getting the Detroit art museum through many of its highs and lows. Over the past 15 years of his tenure on the board, Gargaro helped to save the museum on multiple occasions, including the threat to its collection in 2013 when the city’s bankruptcy led to a suggestion that the DIA’s art be sold in order to pay Detroit’s debt.

Gene Gargaro, chair of the board of the Detroit Institute of Arts, says there’s still a need to talk about the organization’s independence and its outreach.

A wide-ranging group from judges to bankruptcy advisors to art-museum officials, including Gargaro, helped create what became known as the “Grand Bargain,” an agreement that raised more than $800 million for the city’s debts, particularly its pension plans. Of that money, $100 million came from the DIA directly – a project that took about two years of fundraising as part of the museum’s endowment campaign. Its success was an accomplishment, Gargaro said, but it also took 24 months away from getting the DIA’s endowment up to where it needs to be.

Throughout his time working for and with the DIA, Gargaro has been a part of other important efforts that put the beloved museum on better footing for a brighter future. In 2012, he was part of the sizable and controversial campaign to pass a tri-county millage in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to fund museum operations for a decade. That helped raise $23 million for the museum; in exchange, residents of those three counties have free admission to the DIA during the millage period.

In 2014, Gargaro was part of a unique moment that allowed ownership of the museum to transfer from the city of Detroit to a privately held trust. This allowed the DIA to separate itself from the city’s finances, good or bad. Moreover, it made it much easier for the DIA to ask for contributions from individuals, businesses and foundations, Gargaro said.

“We told the people: If you give us 10 years and support the millage, we’ll spend that time raising an endowment,” Gargaro said. “Now that we’re back to fundraising, the reception has been remarkable. The climate for fundraising has been strong. The economy has been strong. Unemployment is low and people are working.”

Salvador Salot-Pons, the new DIA director, who joined the museum staff in 2015, has earned a reputation for helping to increase its visibility in the community. Gargaro said he wanted Salot-Pons in part because he knew he’d have a valuable partner in fundraising, working with the community and creating new relationships with artists, art lovers and Michigan as a whole.

“Graham [referring to the most recent director, who retired in 2015] did wonders – he reinstalled the collection and brought it to national recognition,” Gargaro said. “Salvador is now making it more available to the public. Just as I told Gov. Snyder, the DIA isn’t just part of eastern Michigan. It is the cultural centerpiece of the entire state. Over the next few years, we’re going to be bringing traveling exhibitions to different parts of Michigan under the DIA flag. We’re going to bring our art to the people. Hopefully, they’ll come back to the museum to see much more.”

Salvador Salot-Pons, the head staff member of the Detroit Institute of Arts, is helping to steer the organization in a direction designed to be more inclusive.

That means taking the DIA’s annual visitors from its current level of 700,000 to more than a million. Having an outreach to the state’s 83 counties, its thousands of school districts and its millions of residents, are all part of that goal, which Gargaro says Salot-Pons is championing.

“In the 15 years I’ve been on the board, we’ve been through some trying times. It felt like we’ve been in crisis management all that time,” Gargaro said. “Now, we’re enjoying the benefits of all the work we’ve done. But that doesn’t mean we’re done. We still need to build awareness – we need to talk to people around the state about our independence and our outreach.”

On the west side of the state, the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s LEED Gold certified building at 101 Monroe Center opened in October 2007, and since then has experienced continued momentum and what officials say is unwavering support from the Grand Rapids community. What has fueled this support is its diverse exhibitions, award-winning educational programs and its renowned collection, officials added.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum has a permanent collection of more than 6,000 works and, just like the city it serves, continues to grow each year. It includes American and European 19th- and 20th-century painting and sculpture and a growing collection in the area of design and modern craft. GRAM houses a collection of some 3,000 works on paper, including The Jansma Print Collection – etchings, engravings and woodcuts by master artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Édouard Manet and William Blake.

More than 245,000 people visited GRAM during the 2015-2016 fiscal year, a 4.5 percent increase since 2012-2013. Participation in GRAM’s Drop-in Studio, a hands-on art-making studio program for all ages, has nearly tripled since 2007-08 with a 284 percent increase. Summer Art Camps participation has increased by 192 percent since 2007-08 and student tours participation has increased by 24 percent since 2007-08.

The museum also has grand long-term goals. GRAM’s five-year strategic plan, Vision 2021, started last January and it is focused on its new mission statement: Connecting people through art, creativity, and design. This will happen through building diverse audiences, creating exceptional art and learning experiences, and building institutional strength. Key to this is a wide range of creative expression, including fashion (Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion), photography (Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History 1843 to the Present), tattoo art (Black Waves: The Tattoo Art of Leo Zulueta) and children’s book illustration (Maurice Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are, David Wiesner: The Art of Wordless Storytelling) among others.

This revitalization comes after a 100-year history as a cornerstone of the community, stewarding and growing an important collection, while presenting diverse and engaging exhibitions and programs, said Friis-Hansen.


The Grand Rapids Art Museum is seen by its advocates as having a role as a community connector.


“A deep belief in the importance of the museum’s role as a community connector is at the heart of GRAM’s commitment to nurture partnerships that enhance the museum’s impact on its city, members, visitors and volunteers,” Friis-Hansen said.

It also comes through relationships with schools, organizations and other nonprofit organizations. More than 2,300 students from seven school districts participate in Language Artists, GRAM’s year-long literacy and visual arts program. The museum welcomes thousands of guests each year as a venue for ArtPrize, Grand Rapids’ annual international art competition, and helps serve as an ambassador for the city as part of The Welcome Center, a collaborative effort to share information about all Grand Rapids has to offer.

To celebrate its building’s 10th anniversary, GRAM has two crowd-pleasing exhibitions planned. The first is Andy Warhol’s American Icons and Christian Marclay: Video Quartet. The second, which opens in January 2018, is the debut of Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle, organized by GRAM and traveling to several additional venues throughout the Midwest. The Great Lakes Cycle explores the past, present, and future of North America’s Great Lakes—one of the world’s most emblematic and ecologically significant ecosystems.

“Rockman’s series celebrates the natural majesty and global importance of the Great Lakes while exploring how they are threatened by factors including climate change, globalization, invasive species, mass agriculture and urban sprawl,” Friis-Hansen said.

Moving to the center of the state is the Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art (MICA) in Lansing, which is celebrating its history, as well as its new growth as a destination and event-planning center for the community. Terry Terry, CEO of MessageMakers and president of MICA’s board of directors, describes MICA as a nonprofit organization that uses quality art programming as a catalyst for community development. The programs that MICA produces include MICA Gallery, a contemporary art gallery, the Lansing JazzFest and the Michigan BluesFest.


The Wedding Dance, a 1566 oil-on-panel painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, is on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In 1930, the work was discovered by a previous DIA director in England and brought to Detroit.


MICA is located in historic Old Town Lansing, a decision that has proven to be beneficial to the organization, its gallery and the Old Town area as a whole, Terry said. Its transformation began in the 1980s, grew in the 1990s and has been slowly improving over the past two decades to become an “overnight” success.

“When we moved into the North Lansing area, it was a ghost town. People had left the downtown and moved to the suburbs. There were a handful of artists still there and a couple galleries, but not much was going on. It was starting to look run down,” Terry said. “Then, more artists saw that there was inexpensive space there and they started picking up some buildings and creating an arts scene. That’s when we started organizing events like the JazzFest, BluesFest and October Art Fest.”

With help from the media as well as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Old Town started to get attention in the right way, Terry said. People started to notice that artists created community through their programming, galleries and open spaces.

“We became the poster child for community development,” Terry said of MICA and Old Town. “We became a place where you could run into old friends, meet new friends and create a community through quality arts programming. Since then, that’s been our steady mission. … It’s truly about bringing people together. We’ve got diversity, we’re friendly, we’ve got atmosphere.”

DIA visitors are flanked by one in a series of 27 fresco panels created by Diego Rivera between 1932 and 1933. The series—Detroit Industry—graces the walls of Rivera Court at the DIA.

That includes great bars, restaurants and related businesses that help boost the local economy. There are places like Meat, a restaurant that was featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” a popular show that travels to unique eateries featured regularly on cable television channel Food Network. That brings people in during the week and the weekends, driving additional business investment.

The challenge to its success, Terry said, is that having a great community means more people want to move in, driving prices up. That tends to drive artists out of the area, and that can change the feel of a community that once prided itself on its artists and artist spaces.

“When studio space gets too expensive, they move out,” Terry said.

That is why MICA and its partners are working with groups like Habitat for Humanity to buy older houses in the Old Town area and fix them up for budding artists.

“We need to find ways to support artists, and that’s the bottom line. They are the roots to quality of life in a community,” Terry said. “Artists share perspective on what’s happening in society and provide a vision for the future. People want to be around that. They want to be around smart, creative people.

You need vibrant downtowns to make a community work. It’s vital. And I’m glad it’s happening in Lansing.”