March 26, 2009 at 1:00 am

University of Michigan Museum of Art's $42M makeover opens to public on Saturday

Art installer Jerry Wysocki replaces bulbs in a Favrile glass and bronze chandelier by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The renovation gives the University of Michigan Museum of Art room to display more of its collection, so pieces are coming out of storage. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)

It's the great little art museum you probably never knew we had.

The University of Michigan Museum of Art, long overlooked on the edge of central campus, reopens Saturday after being closed for nearly three years with an award-winning $42 million addition and renovation largely paid for by alumni.

Space more than doubled to 94,000 square feet, with three times more objects on display out of a total collection of some 19,000, from superb Asian holdings to one of the world's top collections of Tiffany architectural glass.

It's a tale of art marrying architecture in a bid to plant the university's flag in the museum world, and seduce students inside with treats from a hip cafe to late-night activities.

If it achieves the latter goal, the reinvented UMMA could well leap from shrinking violet to standout attraction. Departing director James Steward hopes the museum becomes a campus crossroads -- a multiuse arts center where patrons can take in a late-night movie, attend a class, surf the Web over coffee, or just wander around lost in the art.

More than anything, Steward wants to undermine the assumption that just because "I'm not an art student, the museum's not for me."U-M senior and general studies major John Fornoff gave up waiting Tuesday evening for the special student preview on account of long lines. (Some 5,500 students filed in over four hours.) All the same, he's looking forward to seeing whether UMMA lives up to the hype.

From what he's heard, he says, "It's not your father's museum."

The public will get its first peek of the revamped Museum of Art with a 24-hour party on Saturday that includes dance, choral music, DJs, art-making and more.

Steward, who will be around only a month or so to admire his handiwork before heading east to take over the Princeton University Art Museum, raised well over $62 million for the renovation, expansion and endowment.

All but 15 percent came from private donors, including $10 million from U-M grads and Bloomfield Hills collectors Maxine and Stuart Frankel.

'Simply exquisite' addition

Visitors enter the new museum, as before, through the great doors of the original building, the 1910 neo-classical Alumni Memorial Hall. From there they pass into the elegant, semi-circular space known as the Apse, where 19th and early 20th century European and American classics now hang.

Climb to the Apse's second floor and pass into the new building, the Maxine and Stuart Frankel and the Frankel Family Wing. It's a warm, minimalist limestone addition that Michael Kan, former Detroit Institute of Arts interim director and curator, calls "simply exquisite."

"It's so well thought out," he adds. "It's like being inside a great piece of furniture. It's that kind of detail."

The focus of the new wing is a vast three-story "vertical gallery" with sweeping views up, down, and into adjacent galleries. Everywhere you turn, there's a dramatic vista, or a work of art acting as a visual anchor to pull you into a new space.

(The recent addition to New York's Museum of Modern Art attempts similar sightlines, Kan notes, "but does not succeed.")

The light-filtration system is particularly elegant. High-tech adjustable skylights designed by Portland, Ore., architect Brad Cloepfil bathe UMMA's Chinese and other top-floor galleries in dreamy natural light, while windows here and there offer what Steward calls "unspeakably cool" views into the heart of campus, as well as nearby State Street.

Kan, who visited the museum last week, says he fully expects the new wing to win awards. Indeed, Cloepfil's understated design has already been honored by the New York branch of the American Institute of Architects.

Art comes out of storage

But the big surprise here is the art, at least if you assumed the DIA, with its encyclopedic collection, had a lock on all the good stuff.

In years past, UMMA only displayed 3 percent of its works. With the renovations and addition, that number jumps to 10 percent, or about 1,900 items.

Seven hundred of those works are displayed and labeled in classic museum fashion. An additional 1,200 objects that would have been warehoused are now are on display in "open storage" cabinets that allow viewers a glimpse of the collection's depth -- albeit without extensive labeling. Those familiar with UMMA will already know that its Asian collections -- including the first Korean gallery at any academic institution -- are one of its treasures.

Kan calls the Asian collection "remarkably good for a university museum, and beautifully installed." For his part, Steward says UMMA's Japanese and Chinese ceramics collection "are almost unrivaled. And Chinese paintings are one of our glories, and another example where the new building feels made for the art."

Apt to dazzle even those who aren't art buffs is UMMA's collection of Tiffany architectural glass, all from a demolished Fifth Avenue mansion in Manhattan, once owned by H.O. Havemeyer, the sugar baron of the early 20th century.

Popular at the turn of the century, by 1930 Tiffany glass had fallen out of fashion, says Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, curator of American decorative arts at New York's Metropolitan Museum, and the contents of the home were auctioned off before it was torn down.

New York's loss turned into Michigan's gain.

Emil Lorch, then U-M dean of architecture, bought almost everything. (The DIA has a pair of Tiffany andirons from the Havemeyer mansion.)

However, space constraints at UMMA caused its treasure trove to languish in storage for most of the past 75 years.

"The collection is incredibly important," says Frelinghuysen, "from what is unequivocably Tiffany's most important commission. Indeed, I've had the good fortune to borrow many of those pieces."

With the renovations, Tiffany doors now frame the passage from second story of Memorial Hall to the new Frankel wing. To the right and left one finds wisteria-patterned windows and a dazzling twin-peacock mantelpiece. A Tiffany chandelier lights the way.

Paintings by American artists are another key strength here, like Whistler's moody, pre-impressionistic "Sea and Rain: Variations in Violet and Green."

While a tough choice, Steward says it's probably the one work he'd race to grab in event of a fire, before sprinting for his life

Every bit as famous, if not quite so high-brow, is Eastman Johnson's "Boyhood of Lincoln," with the Great Emancipator as a rangy adolescent reading by the fire.

Superb as well are UMMA's German Expressionist works on paper -- a gift from two former U-M professors, and the subject of one of UMMA's three opening shows.

A place for students

Again, it's not just the art lover this museum hopes to attract.

In focus groups early in the planning process, says architect Cloepfil, "students talked about how there were very few nice places on campus to study" apart from the libraries.

It's a problem the Frankel wing aims to remedy with its new cafe. (Its opening date has yet to be announced.)

"I like the fact that they're doing the cafe and a place to sit with your laptop," says senior Fornoff. "And it'll be great to sit in the patio space behind the museum in the summertime."

The architecture works double-time to seduce students, with windows offering tantalizing glimpses Cloepfil hopes will pull them in whether art fans or not. And every hour when classes change, the passing throngs will get stunning views of contemporary works in the new wing's ground-floor Project Gallery.

Gregory M. Wittkopp, the director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, says it's difficult to overstate Steward's accomplishments in his 12 years. The reinvented UMMA turns conventional expectations about such institutions on their heads, he says.

"University art museums can be pretty sleepy places," Wittkopp says. "But James has established a national model for what these museums can be."

You can reach Michael H. Hodges at (313) 222-6021 or mhodges@detnews.com">mhodges@detnews.com.

Lines of students pass the new modern Maxine and Stuart Frankel and the ...
The renovated Apse stands ready for the 24-hour grand opening that begins ... (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)