Published: May 21, 2013

The art of transformation

A masterpiece of a museum opened in November at MSU. The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum is a bold, angular steel and glass wonder designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid. But it’s also much more.

Broad MSU is a cultural destination that opens a world of artistic expression, entrepreneurship, and education. It connects campus, community, and visitors from near and far to each other and to the transformational experience that occurs when global contemporary culture and ideas are explored through art.

A fresh take on MSU’s founding mission of sharing knowledge and providing opportunities to advance the common good, Broad MSU is, says President Lou Anna K. Simon, “a 21st-century reflection of the land-grant ethos and an authentic place to honor the MSU tradition of linking dreaming to doing.”

Quite simply, art is a reflection of our true selves and our potential. And the Broad MSU is both window and mirror.

Leadership profile: Michael Rush

Michael Rush

Michael Rush is the founding director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU. 

When Michael Rush was offered the position as the founding director of MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, designed by world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid, he jumped at the chance.

“In many ways, the new Broad Art Museum is a start-up,” says Rush. “It was a great opportunity for someone in my line of work.”

Once he got to campus, he quickly discovered that it wasn’t just the museum that was special.

“I knew MSU was a substantial university before I came here,” he says. “I have since discovered how truly remarkable a place this is. From top-flight scientists to humanists and experimental artists, all possessing a genuine global view, MSU is proving to be beyond my expectations for excellence.”

Rush sees the opening of the Broad MSU as a defining moment for the future of the university as a leader in art and education.

“The museum owes its birth to the happy moment that united a visionary leader—President Simon—and Eli and Edythe Broad, one of MSU’s most esteemed graduates and his wife, whose philanthropy in the arts, science, and education are among the most generous in contemporary America,” he says. “For the university and the Broads, it was the time to make a huge leap into the forefront of the contemporary art world, so that MSU may lead in the arts in the same way that it is a pioneering force in nuclear physics, education, and rare isotope research, among many other disciplines.”

Rush began his tenure at MSU before the museum was complete and is thrilled with the final result.

“It’s truly fantastic,” he says. “This is a visionary space that is dynamic in every way. You can feel its powerful sense of motion. It’s exhilarating to walk through. This utterly original building will be a gathering place for all people interested in contemporary creative thought and practice. The building will also be a hub for exploring the role of architecture in the community life of the region. It is going to spark associations and programmatic innovations we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Some of the programs that Rush and his staff have already explored draw on MSU’s long-standing commitment to global work and exploration.

“I’ve been so impressed with the range of interest and excellence here at MSU,” he says. “From day one, there’s been a clear expression of a genuine global interest on the part of MSU and wanting this museum to be part of that global identity of the university.”

It’s Rush’s desire to have the museum be the artistic wing of the global mission of the university. In that vein, he plans to feature the finest creative practice from artists throughout the world, especially from countries where MSU has a strong presence in terms of programs and alumni, including China, South Korea, continental Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Russia, and others.

Now that the museum has opened and hosted nearly 32,000 visitors in just two months, Rush is very excited about the future.

“My hope is to have as many departments as possible plugging into our programming,” he says. “There is no subject in the modern world that is alien to the interest of international artists. Artists are engaging science, engineering, new media and communications, land, agriculture, design, and on and on. Our doors will be wide open for collaborations and research opportunities.”

Field note: Participatory art

Alison Gass is curator of contemporary art at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.

Moving my family from San Francisco, California, to East Lansing, Michigan, to take on the exciting job of curator of contemporary art for the Broad Art Museum at MSU was a no brainer for my professional life, but it was more of an unknown for my personal life. My husband, Alec Hathaway, and I didn’t know quite what life in this town would be like for us and our two kids, Millie, three and a half, and Gus, eighteen months. We came to find a fantastic community both at MSU and beyond the university in the greater Lansing area.

I was really lucky growing up in Boston. I regularly took art classes there at the Museum of Fine Arts, and when I moved on to New York to college and graduate school, my art history classes sent me out into the city to see all kinds of art objects and hear lectures with practicing artists. I realized very quickly that I wanted the Broad MSU to serve the community in East Lansing the way I and so many of my friends and family had been served by the museums that we came to think of as “ours” during earlier parts of my life. With that in mind, two of the first projects I brought to the museum are specifically about engaging the community. Each project began in advance of the museum opening, and each currently remains on display.

As visitors come through the west entrance, they are immediately surrounded by two walls of photographic portraits. This is the result of a project by German conceptual artist Jochen Gerz that we commissioned for the opening of the museum. The work, entitled The Gift: Lansing, Michigan, breaks down the traditional divide between viewer and art object, literally making museum visitors and the local community part of a work of art. A key aspect of Gerz’ concept is that he was not present for the production of the portraits. Instead, in an earlier visit to the museum he worked to train a group of students and other volunteers to establish a context in which they, in partnership with the museum, became producers. In the weeks leading up to the museum’s dedication on November 10, residents of the greater Lansing area had the opportunity to sit for portraits at an instant photo lab in downtown East Lansing. Portrait sessions continued at a pop-up studio inside the museum during the opening weekend and at selected times over the next few weeks. The resulting photographs were printed immediately and added to a monumental display of gridded portraits that rotated on a regular basis as new images were created, forming an ever-changing collection of faces.

On December 16, Jochen Gerz returned to East Lansing and everyone who participated in the project was invited to come and receive a portrait presented to them personally by the artist. Significantly, instead of receiving his or her own image, each individual took away a portrait of another individual—a stranger with whom, as a result of The Gift, he or she now shares an experience. These works are considered to be “on permanent loan” from the museum, extending the collection of a public institution out into the world in endless private installations.

Moving beyond the entranceway, visitors pass through the main public gathering space of the museum, including a small store and a café with seating. This leads into the museum’s glass-walled education center, which offers a view onto the sculpture garden and beyond to Grand River Avenue. This is a notable intentional element of Zaha Hadid’s design for the museum. The boundaries between outside and inside are blurred. The contemporary art museum is not a space removed from everyday life, but rather an extension of that life—a place to see the world as you know it reflected back at you through the lens of an artist’s vision.

In the education space lies another installation that fulfills the promise of engaging visitors directly in the artistic experience. Conceived as a platform for dialogue, communal activity, and the presentation and exchange of homemade goods, Domestic Integrities by Los Angeles–based artist Fritz Haeg is centered on a spiral-stitched circular rug that will continue to grow over the course of the installation. Made of used and discarded textiles, including clothing, athletic gear, and bed linens donated or disposed of by local participants, it was produced as part of a community crochet project the artist organized with student groups and other volunteers in the months leading up to the opening of the museum.

Now that the rug has been installed within the museum, it will continue to expand through subsequent crocheting sessions, becoming an indexical record of the community that helped create it as visitors and collaborating student groups bring to it items they have cooked or produced using elements harvested or found in the area: flowers, pickled vegetables, canned fruit, baked bread, woven textiles, and the like. Some of these offerings may remain on the rug for weeks; others will be removed or replaced daily. Haeg’s project not only transforms the dynamics of the museum space but also challenges the traditional experience of being a museum-goer. In this installation visitors are invited to take off their shoes and make themselves at home on the rug—to sit down and inspect, touch, taste, and smell that day’s various Domestic Integrities.

It’s my hope that these two installations in particular, while challenging museum visitors to experience art in a new way, through participation, allow them in a sense to feel a part of the community of art and that art is truly a part of their community. My particular passion for them was perhaps driven in part by being new in a community that is embracing me warmly and wishing for the Broad Art Museum to offer a return embrace. Perhaps it was driven, too, by having young children who will be soon reaching the age where I will want them to be able to experience some of the same joy I did when interacting with art and museums. But fundamentally, I think it is driven by my passion for every person to find meaning in art in his or her own way.

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