November 6, 2007 at 1:00 am

DIA's collection has national luster

Pieces such as Henri Matisse's 'The Window' help the DIA rank among top museums in the country. (DIA)

It's commonplace around town to hear that the Detroit Institute of Arts has "the fifth-best collection" in the United States.

True? And if so, what in the world does that mean?

DIA director Graham Beal, who says he was working on this the other night while waiting for a flight, explains there are two standard measures of "encyclopedic" art museums -- square footage and annual operating budget, and in both respects the DIA has long ranked fifth or sixth.

Beal says, "We used to be the fifth-largest in size, but Houston jumped over us with their new building." He tips his hat at their director, Peter C. Marzio, adding with a shrug, "But they don't have a collection."

Detroit surely does -- part of the legacy of stupendous wealth in the early 20th century when European and other masterpieces were going for a song.

Beal, and many other curators nationwide, divide the top American art museums into two tiers. Crowning them all is New York's Metropolitan Museum and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Beneath that, he says, four august institutions elbow one another for prominence, with each taking the top slot, depending on the specific collection -- the Art Institute of Chicago, the DIA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Cleveland Museum of Art.

"If you rank Asian art tops, you'll pick Cleveland," he says. "Italian painting and sculpture? That's the DIA, and the same is true of American painting. The Impressionists? That's clearly Chicago."

Curators around the country are loath to put a numerical ranking on collections, but almost unanimously praise Detroit. Some place Chicago a notch above Detroit, Philadelphia and Cleveland, but that comes down to quibbling.

"Detroit is one of North America's great encyclopedia museums," says the director of the Dallas Museum of Art, John R. Lane. "And there are places in the DIA that are astounding -- American painting, the Native American collection, parts of its European painting collection, decorative arts and certainly its African collection."

'The Cottagers' by Joshua Reynolds is one of about 6,000 items ... (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
'The Green Circus Rider' by Marc Chagall was part of a large ... (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
The exterior of the DIA undergoes construction. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)