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UMMA installs Christina Olsen as new director

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Christina Olsen was formerly the director of the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Remember the bad old days, when it was tough to recruit top people for local jobs because they all thought Detroit was a drag?

Those days are long gone.

While the energetic new director at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Christina Olsen, loves Ann Arbor, she admits its proximity to Detroit is a real plus.

“It makes a big difference,” she said recently of Detroit’s new, arty reputation. “It sure does.”

Olsen, who started Oct. 30, lands in Ann Arbor with an impressive resume, coming off a five-year stint as the director of the Williams College Museum of Art in western Massachusetts.

Along the way, the University of Chicago art history grad worked at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Olsen also was program officer for the Getty Foundation, directing $4 million in grants for institutional research and education.

In 2008, she moved to the Portland Art Museum as director of education, and then in 2012 vaulted across the continent to Williamstown, Massachusetts.

At Williams, Olsen hosted major exhibitions, including one that just closed on Meleko Mokgosi, an African artist she called “an extraordinary figurative narrative painter in the historical tradition.”

She’s also proud of “Walls,” a program she set up where students — believe it or not — could borrow a piece of art from the museum for the semester.

“Students would get in line the night before, in tents and sleeping bags,” she said, for a chance at works by artists like African-American great Romare Howard Bearden or photographer Margaret Bourke-White.

The pieces, Olsen added, always came back in mint condition.

Christina Olsen, director, University of Michigan Museum of Art: “I have a huge love and commitment to historic art. It would be hard for me to work in museum that wasn’t encyclopedic in some form.”

She’s considering a similar program at Michigan, though noted, “It’s more complicated with 28,000 versus 2,000 students.”

Olsen steps into the UMMA director’s office vacated in 2016 when her predecessor Joseph Rosa left Michigan for Seattle’s Frye Art Museum.

She particularly admires UMMA’s African and Asian art collections, calling the latter “one of the best in the country in terms of depth and breadth.” But she’d like to bulk up contemporary works in both those disciplines “so you can really see the full arc of artistic thinking.”

All the same, as someone who wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania on Italian Renaissance art, “I have a huge love and commitment to historic art,” Olsen said. “It would be hard for me to work in museum that wasn’t encyclopedic in some form.”

Olsen also finds being at a public university with a national profile a bracing change from a small college, not least because it’s places like Michigan where the burning issues of the day — racism, equity and inclusion — tend to get played out.

“The story of Detroit, what happened in Flint, the story of racial justice — these are national and global narratives that deeply matter,” she said, and what historians will write about when they look back at 2017.

As for Detroit, Olsen followed the news about its budding revival from the East, paying particular attention to reports of artists flocking to the city.

“That,” she said, “was a story that really popped for me.”

Olsen called Ann Arbor “beautiful, livable and full of really smart, interesting people” and is also nuts about it’s great restaurants.

“I just spent five years in a bit of a food desert,” she said.

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

Christina Olsen

Director, University of Michigan Museum of Art

Last job: Director, Williams College Museum of Art

Hometown: New York City

Education: Bronx High School of Science; B.A. University of Chicago; Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania

Family: Married to artist and stay-at-home father Jeff Glab; they have two teen daughters.