An imposing block of white marble and limestone, sitting on the corner of Farnsworth and Woodward like a great stone bunker amid the post-apocalyptic bleakness of Detroit's northside.
Above its main entrance, facing west across Woodward, bleeding copper lettering proclaims DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ART. Stationed directly in front of the entrance, in what is supposed to be a statuary plaza, there is a constant siege army of commercial vans, Cadillacs and GMC Suburbans. (Leave it to the Motor City to turn a carefully designed, multimillion-dollar plaza into a parking lot for VIPs.)
The feeling of a fortress under siege is further reinforced as you head through the main doors, a massive construct of ironwork and glass. From the moment you step into the lobby, however, you step into another world. The DIA is a place that you'd never expect to find in Metro Detroit, a city with such a (well-earned) reputation for toughness, rough edges and urban blight.
The DIA was founded in 1885 and funded-- like all things in Detroit-- by the deep pockets of the automobile industry. All told, it's currently the fifth-largest art museum in the United States, boasting a particularly large and diverse collection of artwork. Actually, the collection (composed of more than 60,000 art objects from all periods and cultures) is much larger than the building itself can hold.
In 1971, the Jerome P. Cavanagh Wing was added to the northern side of building. Today, this wing holds their American Art and Contemporary Art galleries, which are absolutely fantastic. The south wing, added five years earlier, is the Edsel and Eleanor Clay Ford Wing, and houses their equally amazing French and Italian Art section. In between, in the cold, high-vaulted rooms of the original building, there's a rare collection of antique armor and weaponry (very cool), a collection of pieces from ancient cultures (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Etruscan, etc) and also, in a wonderful juxtaposition, the Rivera Courtyard (more on that later).
When I said that the Institute was built like a bunker, I wasn't joking. When you walk into the main lobby, you're actually on the 2nd of the building's three floors. The first floor is partially underground. Scattered about down there are somewhat disappointing galleries of Native American, Asian, African and Islamic artwork, as well as overflow from the European galleries above. The 3rd floor is largely given over to special exhibition space, but also holds an awesome Northern European collection (except when it's closed, which is unfortunately often).
Architecturally, the galleries are laid out as a vast grid of interlocking rectangles, each one slightly (or sometimes, startlingly) different from the last. The beautifully sculpted marble in the main lobby is quite breathtaking, and the high ceilings extend throughout the second floor. Don't forget to look up when you're touring the museum. Someone obviously put a lot of effort into the ceilings, probably knowing full well that few would even notice the interesting and clever details they were so carefully crafting. Also remarkable is that the doors and corridors seem to connect the rooms in a rather haphazard fashion. Getting from one end of the building to the other usually takes quite a bit of navigation. I'm sure this is standard for art museums, but unusual for a city like Detroit, where the most dominant feature of almost any plan is to design everything in the straightest and most practical way. Like I said, the DIA is a different world, which likes to do things its own way. Given the post-industrial motif of the cityscape around them, I honestly don't blame them a bit.
Where It's At
The Detroit Institute of Arts is located at:
5200 Woodward Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48202
By Phone: 313.833.7900
On the Web: http://www.dia.org
Native Detroiters will recognize that the 5000-block is right in the heart of what's now being called the city's "Cultural Center". For one thing, it's located right across the street from the Detroit Public Library. In fact, just about every institute of knowledge and civilization that the town has to offer is within a one-block radius of this corner, including Detroit's Science Center, Medical Center, Center For Creative Studies, Historical Museum, and the campus of its major college, Wayne State University. That said, it's highly likely that any random stranger you pass on the street will be able to give you directions to at least something in this neighborhood.
How To Get There
Just in case, I'll give you directions from each of the city's three main arteries...
Soundbound: get off at Warren Avenue (Exit 53A). Turn west (right) on Warren. Follow Warren to Woodward. Turn north (right) onto Woodward.
- From I-75 (The Chrysler Freeway):
- Northbound: get off at Warren Avenue (Exit 53A). Turn west (left) onto Warren. Follow Warren to Woodward. Turn north (right) onto Woodward.
Eastbound: get off at John R. Avenue (Exit 215). Turn south (right) onto John R. Follow John R to Kirby. Turn west (right) onto Kirby. Follow Kirby to Woodward. Turn south (left) onto Woodward.
- From I-94 (The Ford Freeway)
- Westbound: get off at John R. Avenue (Exit 215 - I think the sign actually says "Woodward/John R"). Turn south (left) onto John R. Follow John R to Kirby. Turn west (right) onto Kirby. Follow Kirby to Woodward. Turn south (left) onto Woodward.
Southbound: get off at the Forest/Warren exit. Turn east (left) onto Forest. Follow Forest to Woodward. Turn north (left) onto Woodward.
- From US-10 (The Lodge)
- Northbound: get off at the Forest/Warren exit. Turn east (right) onto Forest. Follow Forest to Woodward. Turn north (left) onto Woodward.
When It's Open
Museum Hours are:
Wednesday and Thursday ~ 10 am - 4 pm
Friday ~ 10 am - 9 pm
Saturday and Sunday ~ 10 am - 5 pm
Closed Monday, Tuesday and some holidays
What It Costs
Actually, they're pretty cool about this. You have to buy a ticket, but the admission charge is whatever you feel like paying. Seriously. The recommended admission is $4, and students and kids they'll let in for only a dollar, but I say that's silly. C'mon, be a classy guy, give 'em 5 dollars at least! For special exhibits, they sometimes suggest a small additional fee, which is perfectly understandable if you ask me.
What To See
The place is huge and, as I mentioned before, it's all ut impossible to take a direct path to something you want to see. Even though they'll give you maps that tell you roughly where things are, the curators are constantly moving things around, juggling special exhibits, opening and closing sections. The only really effective thing to do is just pick a direction and wander until you're tired.
Some famous paintings and sculptures you might recognize, that the DIA has on permanent display:
The Wedding Dance (Pieter Bruegel the Elder), Seated Bather (Pierre Auguste Renoir), Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (Vincent Van Gogh), The Thinker (Auguste Rodin), Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Artemisia Gentileschi), Gladiola (Claude Monet), Watson and the Shark (John Singleton Copley), Cotopaxi (Frederic Edwin Church), The Nut Gatherers (William Bouguereau), Madonna and Child (Giovanni Bellini), Stack (Donald Judd), Union 1 (Frank Stella), The Tunnel (George Segal)
Probably the most famous of all, though, is the tremendous mural by contemporary Spanish artist Diego Rivera, which covers all four walls of the museum's central courtyard. Named "Detroit Industry", it depicts an assembly line constructing an automobile chassis (on the north wall) and a second line creating an engine for the car (on the south wall), surrounded on all sides by smaller murals depicting prosperity, birth, turmoil, shipping, chemistry, medicine, aviation, race relations... basically, a one-painting summary of the entire Metro area.
All-in-all, the collection is truly top-notch, and the staff has taken a lot of efforts to make things easily understandable and informative, even for folks who don't know much about art. Placards, guidebooks and computer kiosks abound throughout the museum.
About the only thing that irks me about the DIA's curators (besides the fact that they keep closing my favorite galleries!) is that at times it seems like they've developed a We'll-take-one-of-everything mentality. When walking through the museum, it's actually rare to come upon two different paintings by the same artist. Instead, it's as if they went down a checklist, picked out one they liked by any given artist and then moved on. Monet? Check. Cézanne? Check. Lichtenstein? Got it. Andy Warhol? Nah, we've got one already. Now, the variety is wonderful, but sometimes a little more depth would be nice, too.
Where To Eat
One last note, on the vitally important topic of good eats.
On the lower level of the DIA itself, almost directly below the main lobby, there is a rather nice café and courtyard, open from 11:30 to 3:30 on Wednesday-Friday and to 4:30 on the weekends. The food there is decent, and usually quite healthy, and if your group wants to split up, it makes a good place to meet up later. However, don't expect anything amazing. It is, after all, only a slight cut above your standard cafeteria fare.
If you'd rather go out somewhere, there are a few decent places within walking distance. (Note that in Motown, "walking distance" is a purely theoretical term. In actuality, no one walks anywhere if they can at all avoid it. Unless you're a hardcore pedestrian, you'll probably want to drive.)
You could go to Twingo's, which is about 1 block west and 2 blocks south, on the corner of Cass & Forest. The place has a reputation for having great food, but I think they've changed management recently, and the service has kinda gone all to hell. Unless you want to wait an hour-and-a-half for a ham sandwich, I suggest you go to The Cass Café instead. It's directly across the street from Twingo's, and is now the de facto "hip place" for the neighborhood's artsy crowd to hang out.
If college kids and hippies aren't your bag, then you can always head for The Whitney, a beautiful restored mansion three blocks directly south of the DIA, on the corner of Woodward & Canfield. Be warned, The Whitney is generally considered to be the highest-class restaurant in the metro area. Be prepared to spend 20 to 30 dollars just for lunch. An awesome lunch, mind you, but still-- 7 bucks won't even buy you salad. Also, make sure you're dressed respectably; there's no official dress code, but you'll definitely feel out of place in a t-shirt and jeans.