Detroit Museum Accused of 'Dumbing Down' Art The Detroit Institute of Arts, which owns one of the most significant collections in the world, has reopened after finishing its $158 million renovation. The museum is trying to make the art more inviting, but not everyone likes their approach.
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Detroit Museum Accused of 'Dumbing Down' Art

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Detroit Museum Accused of 'Dumbing Down' Art

Detroit Museum Accused of 'Dumbing Down' Art

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

After a multimillion-dollar renovation, the Detroit Institute of Art held its grand reopening last weekend. Not everyone, though, is happy with the way the art is presented in the new museum. Critics say that in an effort to attract more visitors, it has opted to favor entertainment over education.

Celeste Headlee has more from Detroit.

CELESTE HEADLEE: Director Graham Beal says the renovation of DIA was a golden opportunity to reinvent the museum, to make it more accessible to the general public, not just the art connoisseur.

Mr. GRAHAM BEAL (Director, Detroit Institute of Arts): This comes from a very, very strong feeling on my part and on behalf of many of my colleagues that something else needed to be done. And I know we're not alone. I know that other museum directors and staff around the world are thinking in these terms. The results may be different, but this is a global debate and this is the DIA's contribution to that.

HEADLEE: Basically Beal decided to treat the entire collection at the DIA the way he treats special exhibitions - with multimedia displays, eye-catching, colors, and storytelling instead of art history.

John Wetenhall is the executive director of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Florida. He says several other museums have experimented with this approach.

Mr. JOHN WETENHALL (The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art): It's been tried before, but probably not to this scale.

HEADLEE: At the DIA, they put together teams that included not just curators but staff members from every department in the museum. They hired museum consultant Daryl Fischer to assemble panels of museum-goers.

Ms. DARYL FISCHER (Museum Consultant): We took them on a tour of the galleries and we said how do you feel in these spaces? How could we make you more comfortable and welcome?

HEADLEE: And this part of the DIA's renovation seems to be the most controversial. Daryl Fischer says that's because it's hard for curators and art historians to let go.

Ms. FISCHER: It's sharing power, right? And I think we have to realize that museums, by their very nature, are conservative institutions. But if they're going to survive, they're also going to have to be more inclusive.

HEADLEE: More than 5,000 artworks were reinstalled, and they're no longer grouped in the traditional way. Instead, the objects tell stories. In one gallery you can enter the mind of Diego Rivera as he paints his famous murals. In another, visitors can sit at a virtual dining table and watch a lavish meal being served at an 18th century French dinner party.

But Jason Kaufman of The Art Newspaper says museums shouldn't be in the entertainment business.

Mr. JASON KAUFMAN (Art Critic): A lot of people are concerned with the tendency of museums, in their efforts to attract larger audiences, to dumb down the way that they present the art to create displays that are more like entertainment and less educational.

Mr. BEAL: We don't think that we're dumbing down at all. What we think we are doing, however, is based on a lot of experience, writing, so that people can understand, making the main - one or two main points about works of art.

HEADLEE: DIA Director Graham Beal says he simply wanted to remove the unfamiliar jargon that turns people off. Nowhere will you see the words baroque and surrealism. And after careful searching, I couldn't find the phrase negative space either.

And art critic Carol Kino says that's okay.

Ms. CAROL KINO (Art Critic): What they're trying to do is to get the public to see art history the way curators and art historians do, as a living thing.

HEADLEE: But Kino says the real test will be, does the presentation make visitors pay more attention to the art itself?

Ms. PAT ISLOWSKI(ph) (Visitor): It's beautiful. It's beautiful. I love the third floor. That is absolutely exquisite. It takes some of the mysteriousness out of it, and it just simply presents it in a more accessible way that I think the children especially can appreciate.

Ms. JOAN LANSDALL(ph) (Visitor): It's wonderful.


Ms. MARY ANN LEE: Just as good as Chicago.

Ms. JASMINE MARTIN(ph) (Child): That was pretty cool.

HEADLEE: Pat Islowski(ph), Joan Lansdall(ph), Mary Ann Lee(ph), and seven-year-old Jasmine Martin(ph) were all at the DIA on Friday. During the grand reopening weekend, nearly 60,000 people visited the DIA in a 40-hour period. But critics say an initial spike in attendance is no proof of success. And after the novelty wears off, other museum directors will be watching to see if the Detroit experiment pays off.

Celeste Headlee, NPR News, Detroit.

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