Rivera, Kahlo exhibit mirrors spirit of DIA, Detroit

Michael Hodges and Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

"Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit," opening Sunday, is the most significant exhibition the Detroit Institute of Arts has mounted in decades.

It's a show that plays to the unique strengths of the museum, with Rivera's iconic "Detroit Industry" murals, and it comes at a propitious moment when the nation has its eyes on Detroit, curious to see what the city and museum make of themselves in the post-bankruptcy era. The exhibit also will remind the world, some argue, that Detroit is a tough, creative town where art — made in Detroit, and about Detroit — has been as much a part of local history as automobiles.

Toby Barlow, chief creative officer at the ad agency Team Detroit, sees a happy coincidence in the timing.

"They've been planning this exhibition for years," he said, "and then it occurs just as the museum and city come out of the bankruptcy trauma."

Trauma was widespread when Rivera and Kahlo arrived at Detroit's Michigan Central Depot in April 1932 — a moment with considerable parallels to our recent past. The Depression had clobbered Detroit, labor unrest was exploding, and the DIA's budget had been cut to just 10 percent of what it was in 1928. There was talk of closing the museum.

Into this environment stepped the two exotic foreigners.

"Diego and Frida arrive just after Henry Ford sent goons to beat up union organizers," said Mark Rosenthal, DIA adjunct curator who organized the show, "and now here comes this Mexican communist." And not just any communist, but one with a $20,000 commission (about $250,000 today) from Henry's grown son Edsel to paint "something out of the history of Detroit."

Despite initial opposition, mostly led by religious conservatives, the Rivera murals have become a touchstone of local pride. A 1986 Rivera retrospective at the DIA drew 228,000 visitors, a record for the museum at the time. Museum officials say they hope the current show will pull in at least 200,000, far more than any recent DIA special exhibitions.

"If this show doesn't attract a lot of attention," said Vince Carducci, a dean at the College for Creative Studies and editor of the online Motown Review of Art, "it would be a huge shock."

First glimpse of Kahlo's art

"Diego and Frida" offers a rare chance to see Rivera's spectacular preparatory mural drawings — huge charcoal-and-pigment cartoons lost and forgotten in DIA storage for almost 50 years and too fragile to leave the museum. The exhibit also is noteworthy in giving Detroiters their first glimpse of Kahlo's work, including several paintings she completed in Detroit.

With 23 pieces in the show, Kahlo — cult figure, feminist superstar and subject of a 2002 film — is likely to be a huge draw. For her part, Gabriela Ruiz, 28, a third-generation Detroiter raised on her grandmother's tales of meeting the two Mexican artists in 1933, couldn't be more excited.

"I've been waiting for Frida to come back for years," Ruiz said. "Frida Kahlo is one of my heroes. It's a crime everyone doesn't know the story of Frida in Detroit."

Everyone might once the national media has its way. Media outlets as diverse as the Economist, Boston Globe, Washington Post, New York Times, "CBS Sunday Morning," Art in America and NPR's "All Things Considered" have sent reporters or plan to shortly.

"It's a phenomenal exhibition that will confirm that Detroit is alive and well and a comeback city," said Michael O'Callaghan, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Local businesses, from hotels to Mexican restaurants, are hoping for a Diego-Frida boost. Also banking on the show's success are Michigan Opera Theatre and the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, which are staging "Frida" through March 28 at various locations in the Metro area.

Some suggest the exhibition could help shape Detroit's evolving reputation as an unexpected artistic hotspot.

"People think of the aesthetic landscape of Detroit as Rust Belt chic," Barlow said. "It's important to remember this is a place where beautiful things have been designed and created for over a century."

Jerry Herron, dean of Wayne State University's Honors College, argues the nation is hungry for Motor City good news of the sort "Diego and Frida" might embody.

"There was a vengefulness when Detroit foundered," he said. "The rest of the country got mad and looked for something else to believe in, but couldn't quit believing in us. Now we've emerged into a new hopefulness, born of going through something hard together. So the exhibition couldn't be more timely."

DIA reclaims role as leader

Staff at the DIA know a thing or two about going through something tough together, what with the threat to the museum's collection during the long bankruptcy process, when, in theory, artwork could have been sold to pay Detroit's debts.

There's also hope the exhibition will correct the misunderstanding held by some that the museum itself was in financial trouble, and not the city.

"Given the reporting during the bankruptcy," said Jeffrey Abt, professor of art and art history at Wayne State, "people outside the Detroit area may have perceived that the museum itself was damaged, or that its capacity to do what it does was diminished."

And after seven years when the DIA, like virtually all museums, pinched pennies and put off expensive shows, "Diego and Frida" represents a highly public return to former ambitions.

"The DIA is reclaiming its role as a leader in organizing exhibitions and showing art," said Joseph Rosa, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

As for the show's timing, said DIA Director Graham Beal, that was dictated by when the museum could borrow Kahlo's works, now that she's one of the art world's superstars and in heavy demand.

But opening at this particular moment, following the bankruptcy and the grand bargain that saved the museum's collection, may prove to be ideal, suggests James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum.

"There's a certain ferocity to the art of both these artists," he said, "that feels very germane to this moment in Detroit — a story of survival in the face of tragedy, fighting back in the face of despair."

Read more reports from this series

'Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo in Detroit'

Sunday through July 12

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays & Wednesdays; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays & Fridays; 10 a.m .-5 p.m. Saturdays & Sundays.

Exhibit tickets: $14, Tuesday-Friday; $19, Saturday & Sunday; $9, children age 6-17; free for children 5 and younger, and DIA members

Call (313) 833-4005 for reservations, or visit dia.org.