The University of Michigan Museum of Art is staking a claim as an academic and community center for the arts with a $41.9 million expansion and renovation of its home in the heart of campus.
The museum recently reopened, bringing a sorely needed update to its nearly century-old home and more than doubling the space available for display, temporary exhibitions, programs and education with a new wing.
It’s the culmination of years of fundraising in a Michigan economy that’s been in recession since long before the rest of the country. But Director James Steward says the museum, with its new light-filled expanses of galleries, is a testament to its patrons and the school’s commitment to the arts.
“Our benefactors have felt so strongly about the value of giving to a museum that can be in a position to help fundamentally shape the experience of tomorrow’s leaders the students of the university, young people,” Steward says.
The reopening comes as colleges and universities across the country grapple with the future of their museums amid the economic downturn. Some are pushing forward with bold plans for new buildings while others are selling off pieces of art to help raise money or even considering closing.
More than 90 percent of Michigan’s construction funds came from private donations, and hundreds of art works worth at least $37 million were pledged to bolster the museum’s collection of more than 18,000 pieces. Steward noted it was fortunate Michigan’s fundraising, which ran from 2001 to 2008, didn’t start later because raising money in the current downturn would be even more challenging.
At the University of California, Berkeley, plans are moving ahead for a new $130 million to $140 million home for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. A spring 2013 public opening is planned and the project is nearing the halfway mark of its fundraising goal.
“In the current economic situation, were there to be a short delay, I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Director Lawrence Rinder, who previously worked with Steward at the Berkeley museum. “We’re doing very well with our campaign.”
Faced with economic realities, other schools have raised questions about the future of their art museums.
Most notably, Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, caused an uproar with an announcement from the school in January about its museum. The university’s president later clarified the statement, saying that while the Rose Art Museum may no longer be a public museum, it would remain open with a focus on serving the school’s educational needs.
David Alan Robertson, president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries, said museums such as Michigan’s have public responsibilities. He says they not only serve the campus but act as surrogate public museums for the surrounding community and K-12 students.
“Places like our museums really become centers for interdisciplinary study,” said Robertson, director of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. He said those talking of closing campus museums or selling art collections are “missing the point of these institutions.”
Filling an academic and community role is a key goal at the new University of Michigan Museum of Art. The museum’s 41,000-square-foot (3,810-square-meter) home at Alumni Memorial Hall originally opened in 1910, and had grown cramped and outdated. Much of the museum’s collection including its modern art was kept in storage.
“We have very deep holdings in this period, most of which were rarely seen,” said Steward, who earlier this year was appointed director of the Princeton University Art Museum and will begin work there in late April.
Now, the centerpiece of the museum is a 53,000-square-foot (16,154-meter) glass-and-limestone addition named the Maxine and Stuart Frankel and the Frankel Family Wing, for the family that donated $10 million to the project. It houses modern and contemporary art, as well as five Asian art galleries, classroom space, an auditorium and a gift shop.
“One the most exciting components of the building really is that dialogue between old and new,” said principal architect Brad Cloepfil, whose Portland, Oregon-based Allied Works Architecture designed the project. “The natural light was closed off. The collection was almost like a secret.”