Motor City Overhauls Its Art Museum

Sunday, December 9, 2007

WHAT: The newly renovated Detroit Institute of Arts

WHEN: Opened Nov. 23


WHY GO: The six-year, $158 million renovation of the downtown Detroit Institute of Arts came about for several reasons, among them the need to increase gallery space, improve traffic flow inside and make the visitor experience more interactive. For DIA director Graham Beal, though, the renovation happened for a much more crucial reason: "The walls were falling off."

Though ultimately a renovation of necessity, the new design shakes up the standard art-going experience, allowing visitors to forge a more personal connection with the works.

"We've re-contextualized the works of art so they relate directly to the human experience," Beal said. "We're not trying to teach people art history."

To achieve this, the 112-year-old DIA has arranged its 60,000 pieces -- which include American, European, modern and contemporary works -- according to stories the objects tell rather than grouping them by time period or style. The galleries, now easily accessible from what Beal calls a "main street" running through the institute, display themes to which visitors can relate, such as dining, travel and the cycles of life.

The renovation adds about 35,000 square feet of gallery space. For now, some of the walls will remain empty until the museum can acquire more pieces.

DON'T MISS . . . several new interactive elements, such as a "virtual" dining room set up in a space surrounded by 18th-century European serving pieces and featuring a five-minute video simulating a lavish three-course meal. (No elbows on the virtual table, please.) . . . For the younger set, kid-friendly opportunities include "Please Touch" labels on various pieces, such as ivory and glass beads in the African collection, and "Eye Spy" panels that challenge tykes to find specific pieces of art in the gallery. . . . The new exhibit "City Sitings" coincides with the reopening and features Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu's large, dynamic paintings of Detroit, which Beal describes as "elegant thunderstorms." Adds the director: "We didn't want to have a big special exhibition because [the reopening] is all about the collection. But because the collection is so historical, I wanted to have something that was really here and now."

EXTRAS: "Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future" made its American debut last month at the Cranbrook Art Museum (39221 Woodward Ave., 248-645-3323, http://www.cranbrook.edu; $10), 15 miles north of Detroit in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. The exhibition explores the work of the controversial architect, whose credits include Dulles International Airport, the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the TWA terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy airport. Runs through March 30. . . . The museum's Friday Night Live programs feature musical performances by local and national artists each Friday at 6:30 and 8 p.m. Upcoming performers include Detroit garage rock bad SSM on Jan. 4 and the Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble on Jan. 11. Free with museum admission.

EATS: The Whitney (4421 Woodward Ave., 313-832-5700), housed in a 113-year-old mansion a few blocks from the institute, was recently renovated and stars a new executive chef. Menu items include crab spring rolls ($13) and chicken roulade stuffed with pork and pistachios ($26), plus an impressive array of wines. Union Street (4145 Woodward Ave., 313-831-3965) features an art deco design and casual fare. A barbecued rib dinner will set you back $17.50, as will the Scooby Doo pasta. The bar has 100 kinds of bottled beer and 15 brews on tap.

SLEEPS: Two downtown Marriott properties offer package deals that include a room, two tickets to the DIA and museum parking. The Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center (Renaissance Center, 313-568-8000, http://www.marriott.com) has rooms from $175 a night; doubles at the Courtyard by Marriott Center (333 E. Jefferson Ave., 313-222-7700, http://www.marriott.com) cost between $164 and $174. The Inn on Ferry Street (84 E. Ferry St., 313-871-6000, http://innonferrystreet.com) is a 40-room boutique hotel next to the institute; its $189-a-night Let Yourself Go package includes two museum tickets. Las Vegas meets Detroit at the MGM Grand (888-646-3387, http://www.mgmgrand.com), a brand-new 400-room hotel and casino with five nightclubs. Basic room rates start at $299.

INFO: Detroit Institute of Arts,5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, 313-833-7900, http://www.dia.org.

-- John Maynard

© 2007 The Washington Post Company