The Detroit Institute of Art is the successor to the Detroit Museum of Art. The city’s first art gallery, it was founded, primarily by James E. Scripps who published the Detroit News. In 1881, he spent five months touring western Europe and was exceptionally impressed by the classical art that he viewed. After he returned, his assistant at the Detroit News, William Brearley, organized a large art exposition by borrowing works of arts from leading US art museums and collectors. Brearley then devoted much effort to raising the funds needed for a museum of art in Detroit. The largest single donor was James Scripps, but very many other prosperous Detroit individuals contributed funds. The Detroit Museum of Art was chartered in April, 1885. Three years later they opened their galleries in a large Romanesque building at the intersection of East Jefferson and Hastings, a building that no longer stands. I have seen pictures of that structure. It looked quite like a medieval castle with impressive towers and huge stone archways at the entrance. Scripps and a few other Detroit residents contributed substantial collections of European art works to this museum. The individual who had, arguably, the most impressive personal collection of art in the nation in 1900 was Detroit resident Charles Lang Freer. I have read that he made minimal contributions from his collection to the Detroit Museum. He left many more to the National Gallery in Washington. Perhaps Scripps had doubts about the seriousness of the Detroit Museum since prosperous donors were apparently able to “borrow” classical work from the gallery for display in their homes. There are also stories that Freer worked very actively to have a monument closely resembling the Washington Monument erected on the southern tip of Belle Isle to commemorating the 200th anniversary of Antoine Cadillac’s founding of the city. Apparently, the city’s financial elite offered Freer little support in his attempts to memorialize Detroit’s entering its third century and this may led him to conclude that a Detroit museum should not house his collection. Other explanations may also explain why Freer’s marvelous collection of unique art did not remain in Detroit after his death. To be sure, Freer donated some art to the city’s museum.
The City Beautiful movement that emerged from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago led many cities to develop strategies to make them attractive and beautiful. Of course, this was an immense challenge in an era of steam trains, coal heating for homes and factories, and horses for local transportation. Under Mayor Brietmeyer in about 1911, a committee was appointed to suggest how to beautify Detroit, a committee that included Daniel Burnham who was the originator of the City Beautiful movement. One of their major suggestions was the creation of a Cultural District on Woodward just north of Warren. This is the district that is now home to three of the city’s most beautiful buildings: the Detroit Public Library designed by Gilbert Cass and opened in 1921, the University of Michigan’s Horace Rackham Building designed by the Harley, Ellington and Day firm and opened in 1941 and the Detroit Institute of Art.
In 1919, the private Detroit Museum of Art gave its art and its building on East Jefferson to the City of Detroit. The city established an Art Commission with Ralph Booth as chair. They were charged with building a new gallery in the Cultural Center and administering the art collection. Paul Philippe Cret was selected to design the building. Cret, born in Lyon in 1876, was trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then accepted a job as a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He designed the impressively large Beaux-Arts, Italian Renaissance building that you see. The cornerstone was laid in 1923 and, in October, 1927, the building was opened. Cret created quite a few distinguished and extremely well known buildings that are still cherished. Perhaps the Detroit Institute of Art and the Federal Reserve Building (1937) but now called the Marriner S. Eccles Building on Constitution Avenue are his best known. He also designed the iconic University of Texas Tower in Austin (1931), the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington (1932) and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge connecting Philadelphia and Camden (1926).
The Detroit Institute of Art is the fifth largest art museum in the United States. It has a very extensive multicultural array of arts from all parts of the world and spanning the interval from prehistory to the Twentieth First century. The key figure in the development of the current collection was William Valentiner, an art historian and scholar from Berlin, who served as director from 1924 through 1945. One of his most outstanding decisions was to recruit Diego Rivera, a Mexican Communist who came to Detroit to paint the world famous murals that decorate the main entryway. Simultaneously, Valentiner recruited Edsel Ford as Rivera’s generous benefactor. Known as “Detroit Industry,” the colorful Rivera murals may still be the nation’s most famous and provocative populist art some 75 years after their completion.
The Detroit Institute of Art expanded in the post-World War II era with the addition of a new wing in 1966 and another just five years later. The gallery was closed for much of the summer and fall of 2007 so that the interior could be remodeled and revised. Architect Michael Graves added about 31,000 square feet of display space.
The area in and around Detroit’s Cultural Center has undergone much development and renewal in the last fifteen years. The Detroit Institute of Art devoted $128 million to the renovation that was completed in late 2007. Thanks to a donation from the estate of Josephine Ford, the College for Creative Studies became the most richly endowed art college in the nation. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History opened in 1998 in a distinctively attractive building designed by Detroit’s Sims-Verner firm. In 2005, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit opened just a couple of blocks away in the strikingly white Garfield Building that Albert Kahn designed in 1908. Detroit’s Cultural Center has undergone very substantial change in the last few years.
Architect: Paul Phillippe Cret
Architectural Style: Beaux Arts and Italian Renaissance
Date of Completion: 1927
City of Detroit Local Historic District: The Detroit Institute of Art is included in the Cultural Center Historic District
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: The Detroit Institute of Art is included within the Cultural Center Historic District. P 25056
National Register of Historic Sites: Listed November 21, 1983
Use in 2007: Art Gallery
Photograph: Ren Farley; March 28, 2005