Dan and Jennifer Gilbert give $30M to Cranbrook Academy of Art to boost diversity efforts

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Bloomfield Hills — A historic $30 million gift on Tuesday from billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert and his wife Jennifer to the Cranbrook Academy of Art, the largest single gift in the institution's history, will go toward creating full-tuition fellowships for underrepresented minority students, bringing more artists of color to campus to teach and boosting the academy's financial stability.

The gift, believed to be the largest financial donation to a graduate art program in the United States ever, will be "transformational" for Cranbrook's graduate art program, said Dominic DiMarco, president of the Cranbrook Educational Community.

"This is historic," DiMarco said. "It's really a catalyst to move the academy forward. ... It's this whole idea of increasing the diversity of voices on campus, bringing in kids, really good students, really talented artists, who couldn't study at Cranbrook (in the past) because of our tuition model."

The Gilberts' gift comes just days after another massive donation: a pledge to invest $500 million in Detroit's neighborhoods over the next 10 years. The billionaire founder of Quicken Loans plans to start with $15 million for overdue property taxes.

Jennifer Gilbert, who chairs the Board of Governors for the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum, said the gift announced Tuesday is in response to what she's heard over the last several years from community stakeholders. 

“There’s a lot of work to be done," said Gilbert, who joined the Board of Governors in 2011 and has been chair since 2017. "Our ultimate goal is to drive lasting financial stability while creating a more diverse and equitable community. We know it’s not a silver bullet, but a step in the right direction."

Cranbrook -- which includes a graduate art program, art museum, science institute, girls' school and boys' school -- was founded in 1904 by George Booth and his wife Ellen Scripps Booth. They hired Eliel Saarinen, a Finnish architect, to design the campus.

To create more diversity, a portion of the $30 million gift will go toward creating 20 full-tuition fellowships, called Gilbert Fellows, for students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. It also will fund visiting faculty artists over the next five years, with a focus on artists of color.

And it will cover the cost of hiring inclusion, diversity and equity consultants "to continue to develop and implement plans for long-term substantive change," according to Cranbrook.

The Cranbrook Academy of Art, considered a top graduate art program in the country that typically has about 150 students every year, is part of the larger Cranbrook Educational Community founded in 1904 by George Booth and his wife, Ellen Scripps Booth, on a 319-acre campus in Bloomfield Hills.

The community, designed by famed Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, also includes a contemporary art museum, institute of science, Cranbrook House & Gardens, and a K-12 college-preparatory school. 

Informal arts education started at Cranbrook in the 1920s with studios for artists and craftspeople working with Saarinen, who was the art academy's first president, but it wasn't until 1932 that the academy was officially sanctioned.

It's modeled after the American Academy of Art in Rome and has 11 departments, including 2D Design, 3D design, architecture, ceramics, photography and sculpture. Famous alumni include Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia and Paul Evans. Iconic designers Charles and Ray Eames met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

According to the academy's website, tuition and fees for one year are $39,240. The cost of two-year graduate degree would be roughly $78,000.

Renowned visual artist Nick Cave, who graduated from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1988 and is Black, remembers the lack of diversity when he was at Cranbrook. He said he had an "amazing" experience but he was the only minority student in the graduate program.

"So it was a shocking moment for me to come to terms with that," said Cave, who is from Missouri. "Luckily, I had Detroit. Detroit was my savior — (a place) to be able to connect with your people and have balance. And it was fabulous. I needed both."

Cave said the importance of scholarships allows for a "diverse, inclusive makeup" on campus — and that's important.

"If we’re trying to sort of imagine the world in which we hope to exist in collectively, it has to look like it," he said.

The Cranbrook Academy of Art is one of the top graduate art programs in the country.

DiMarco believes the campus is more diverse now than during Cave's tenure but "honestly, there's more work to do at all these places."

"Is it overdue? I'm not sure. But I am sure this is the direction we should be heading," DiMarco said.

Graduate programs across the country appear to struggle with attracting diverse student bodies. A 2017 study of graduate enrollment and degrees sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools and GRE found enrollment of underrepresented minorities is an issue in many subject areas. Blacks, for example, accounted for only 5.3% of total enrollment in arts and humanities graduate programs in 2016. 

DiMarco said it's about investing in "underrepresented change makers." He said Saarinen had a vision of the art academy as a "creative utopia" and believed the best way for artists to learn was from each other.

"We still believe in this vision, and that fostering a diverse and inclusive community is critical to its pursuit," said DiMarco, who is preparing to retire in June.

Aside from boosting the academy's diversity and inclusion efforts, Cranbrook officials also plan to use a portion of the Gilberts' gift for new initiatives to create alternative revenue streams to help secure financial sustainability and reduce reliance on tuition for funding.

DiMarco said the campus essentially shuts down once students leave for the summer, but those spaces could be used for other programming.

"We have that beautiful campus and those beautiful spaces that we could use for art programs, third-year programs, doctoral programs, adult programs," said DiMarco. "... Everything that we do in that space may not work, but having the resources to try some of these things is really going to be helpful to us."

Cave, who went to Cranbrook with a scholarship after a former professor told him he should go there, said he's just grateful for what the Gilberts' gift will do for the academy and for artists of color.

"To be surrounded by Saarinen and connected to Knoll, it’s about design, it's about art,"  Cave said. "To be able to have access to that is life-changing. I know it was for me."

mfeighan@detroitnews.com