'Diego and Frida' most popular DIA show in 15 years

Jennifer Chambers and Michael Hodges
The Detroit News

As darkness fell around the Detroit Institute of Art on Sunday, the inside of the museum was full of light, still drawing in people for the last hours of "Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit."

In its final day at the DIA, the Detroit-only exhibit drew thousands of visitors for 12 straight hours, staying open until midnight to accommodate visitors from across the United States and Canada.

Museum officials said exhibit tickets, issued every 30 minutes for up to 250 people a session, sold out from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m.

Official attendance figures released just after midnight, when the museum closed the exhibit Sunday, showed 179,051 visitors, making the 12-week show the biggest at the DIA since 2000, when "Degas and the Dance" drew 171,000 people. The DIA's most popular show was "Van Gogh: Face to Face" which pulled in 315,000 patrons in 1999.

Many visitors said they learned Sunday was the last day for the exhibit and scrambled to the show. The exhibit focuses on the 11 months Rivera and Kahlo spent in the Motor City in 1932 and 1933, when Edsel Ford paid Rivera $20,000, about $250,000 today, to paint the "Detroit Industry" murals.

"I meant to come earlier of course," said Rebecca Parker Matrescu of Detroit. "I thought it was wonderful. I saw every single painting." .

Earlier Sunday, there was a festive feeling around the museum where hordes of families, couples and groups descended on the DIA, waiting in line for tickets or wandering the museum's halls and galleries for their turn at the exhibit.

Kevin Spriggs and his best friend, Kristie Edwards, decided Saturday night while at the Taste of Chicago to see the exhibit.

"We drove from Chicago and got into Detroit at 4 a.m. this morning," Spriggs said, smiling wide.

"I'm a huge Frida Kahlo fan, and I've followed her everywhere to see exhibits," Edwards, 34, said.

The couple bought tickets and learned they would have to wait several hours to see the show. No problem, they said.

"I was really surprised how popular this exhibit was going to be," Briggs said.

Rivera, one of the most famous artists in the world during the 1930s, was fascinated by the Ford Rouge industrial complex and Detroit, and always called "Detroit Industry" his greatest work.

Kahlo hated Detroit, but it was in the Motor City that her art took the radical turn that created the artist we know today.

After twin traumas — a July 4 miscarriage and her mother's death in Mexico — Kahlo started to paint her own body in raw, emotionally fraught works like "Henry Ford Hospital" that would cement her reputation.

As Eleanor Roleston left the DIA after seeing the exhibit with her grandchildren, son and daughter-in-law Sunday afternoon, she described Rivera as a master of the line.

She especially enjoyed watching black-and-white video footage of Rivera painting the Detroit mural.

"I didn't want to miss it. I had been out of town and so I got back in time to see it," the 74-year-old Rochester Hills resident said.

Since 2000, the most popular special DIA exhibition apart from "Diego & Frida" was "Degas and the Dance," which drew 171,000 visitors.

The biggest show in recent memory, however, starred one of art history's all-time rock stars, whose name recognition and popularity swamp even Rivera and Kahlo's. In 1999, "Van Gogh: Face to Face" pulled in 315,000 patrons. The only exhibit that comes close to "Van Gogh" was the 1997 "Splendors of Ancient Egypt," attended by 300,000.

In 1986, the museum mounted "Diego Rivera: A Retrospective," which drew 228,000 visitors. It may seem odd that a Rivera show would outdraw one featuring the combined talents of Rivera and Kahlo, but the Rivera retrospective had one big advantage over "Diego & Frida," according to DIA spokeswoman Pam Marcil.

"The 1986 Rivera show," she said, "was free."

Because the "Detroit Industry" murals are an integral part of "Diego & Frida," the show, which was organized entirely by the DIA, will not travel to any other cities.

JChambers@detroitnews.com