The last time I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts was in the late ’80s when my husband and I drove down to hear punk rock icon Lydia Lunch speak. Woodward from the highway looked like a demilitarized zone, lined with gutted derelict buildings and full of windblown trash. We were relieved to be able to drive into the garage beneath the art museum and not have to leave our car on the street.
Detroit has changed a lot since then, but its money woes linger. Last year, when there began to be talk of selling some of the city-owned artwork, I decided I needed to take our daughter down to see the DIA one last time, while its collection was still intact.
And what a great collection it is! Spanning from Egyptian mummies to Korean buddhas, from Native American masks and canoes through Greek vases and Roman mortuary sculpture, from paintings dating to the Middle Ages to Warhol prints and beyond, the collection is eclectic and fascinating.
Some of the art pieces were gifts from Detroit’s halcyon days, when the Dodge, Chrysler, and Ford families offered items from their collections on semi-permanent loan. I think those items cannot be sold, since the city itself doesn’t legally own them. On the other hand, Rembrandt’s The Visitation, Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, and Van Gogh’s self-portrait were bought by the city and could possibly go up on the auction block.
I support the city paying the salaries of its police and fire departments, along with the pensions of the city employees who’ve stuck it out over the years. I’m not sure what other assets Detroit has left to sell off to be able to make its bills. Still, it breaks my heart to see these treasures assessed for their monetary value. So little of Detroit’s old glory has survived, but the DIA memorializes what’s already been lost. I hate to see it sold for scrap, too.
The absolute pinnacle of the museum’s collection would be difficult—if not impossible—to separate from the building. In the 1930s, Diego Rivera came to Detroit to paint an enormous fresco in honor of Henry Ford’s factory and the everyday heroes of the assembly line. The DIA says the two-story eleven-panel piece that fills the Rivera Court “is considered the finest example of Mexican mural art in the United States.” Rivera himself thought it was the best work of his career. (You can tour the mural with an app here.)
The Rivera Court was blocked off the day we visited because someone had rented it for a fashion shoot. I couldn’t begrudge the museum a source of income and we could still peek over the barrier, but it was harder for my daughter to marvel at it the way I’d done as a kid.
The museum made up for it by providing a project for kids. My daughter Sorrell and I pieced together mosaics of painted cardboard. After she read all the Percy Jackson books, she’d studied the Greek gods in school, so we had a great time identifying them on the vases on the second floor. Our favorite exhibit was a video installation called The Art of Dining in the French dinnerware room. A table served as a screen onto which the various ornate pieces served a multi-course feast. We eavesdropped on the French dinner conversation, but all we could see of the diners were their hands and their frilly lace cuffs.
Sorrell and I felt as if we’d only scratched the surface of the museum by the time we’d worn my parents out. We left with the promise to come back another day and explore some more. The museum has a collection of puppets I would love to see, as well as the contemporary collection that we didn’t even peek at.
Although we visited on a summer weekday, there seemed to be plenty of visitors, most of them in business clothes. The neighborhood around the museum is livelier now, full of arts associations, theater groups, and occupied apartment buildings. I wonder if those will survive once the DIA is dismantled—or if everything will slip back to the way I remember it.
Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48202
Closed Mondays. Open other weekdays at 9 a.m. Closing hours vary. Open Saturdays and Sundays from 10 to 5 p.m.
Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for youth 6-17, and free for children 5 and under and for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.