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New programs to make UMMA a “town square” for the arts

New Museum of Art UM

Poet Mark Doty speaking at UMMA in commemoration of Day With(out) Art, December 1, 2007. Upon reopening in March 2009, the Museum will host the University of Michigan Creative Writing Department’s Zell Visiting Writers Program in the new 225-seat Helmut Stern Auditorium.

Public programs have always been a critical part of the Museum’s role to broaden and deepen its audience’s experience of visual art. While for much of UMMA’s history program offerings had consisted of lectures on artists and art history, over recent years an evolution has taken place, with a broadening in the range of programs to offer a more meaningful place to the literary and performing arts alongside visual culture. As the Museum’s public programs aggressively ramped up, facilitating greater contextualization of its collections and temporary exhibitions, audience demand stepped up, with the result that event spaces in the “old” Museum were often serving double and triple duty. In this compromised set of spaces the Museum, often collaborating with University and community partners, has presented some of the most noteworthy artists of our time, with a special commitment to the written and spoken word.

Standout events of the past decade have included Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney speaking on the meanings of Irish art and reading from his own work as a poet in conjunction with the Museum’s acclaimed exhibition When Time Began to Rant and Rage: Figurative Painting from Twentieth Century Ireland; poet and memoirist Mark Doty and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass presented in recent commemorations of Day With(out) Art/World AIDS Day; and the annual UM Poetry Slam grand slam competition, a rollicking showcase of student performance poetry hosted at the Museum. In the musical arena, a new series of concerts jointly organized with WCBN have brought a range of “hot” indie-music talents to UMMA. Music and dance performances, family programs with art-making opportunities, film and video, the annual Welcome Week event known as Artscapade!, and of course major art historical investigations and artists’ talks by prominent thinkers and practitioners have rounded out UMMA’s diverse range of program offerings over recent years.

The space and physical constraints of Alumni Memorial Hall often limited the number and complexity of such programs that could be offered, and were a major motivation for the Museum’s expansion. With the newly expanded and restored UMMA, the Museum is now shaping a new role for itself as a new kind of town square for the arts, a meeting place transcending disciplines, creative media, and practices, with a renewed outlook on programming. An expanded range and volume of public programs will provide myriad points of entry and opportunities to engage with the Museum’s collections and exhibitions and with creative expression in different ways. Following the Museum’s reopening in spring 2009 a family of distinctive and historic partnerships instigated by the Museum reflecting years of planning will come to fruition, embodying the next natural progression for the Museum’s programming and linking into more diverse communities, building new audiences, and moving beyond the galleries. The Museum’s new and improved event spaces, including the new 225-seat Helmut Stern Auditorium, the beautifully restored Apse whose capacity will have greatly expanded, a multi-purpose “wet” classroom, and other classrooms and meeting spaces have been specifically designed to enhance and extend the Museum’s visual arts program through other media.

Among those organizations partnering with UMMA to create this new kind of “museum town square” are many with which the Museum’s education department has collaborated in the past. But this opportunity to offer boundary-crossing programs and performances in more compelling ways, to deepen a sustained conversation among the arts within a university art museum with near universal collections—and now with the facilities to support it—is unprecedented.

“So much exciting new work is being made by artists operating at the intersections of the visual arts and performance, the moving image, and letters that we felt the necessity to not only present such work but to foster its creation,” said UMMA Director James Steward. “We felt an obligation, as a preeminent university art museum, to support these artists wherever their vision takes them.”

Beginning in the 2009-10 season, one of the most vibrant arts presenters in the country, the University Musical Society (UMS), will partner with UMMA to co-present performing artists, as well as educational events related to its programs in music, dance, and theater. In the same way that the Museum, through its new Irving Stenn, Jr. Family Project Gallery, will offer an ongoing exhibition series devoted to emerging contemporary visual artists (some of whom will offer talks under the auspices of UMMA and the UM School of Art and Design’s Penny Stamps Distinguished Visitors Series), the UMS-UMMA partnership is designed to engage audiences looking for the unexpected and the provocative.

The UM Program in Creative Writing is one of the leading MFA programs in the country and its Zell Visiting Writers Series brings between 15 and 20 major writers to campus every year. Especially attracted to UMMA’s new facility and its potential to grow audiences, these popular events will now have a home at the Museum. In addition, the program plans to hold its MFA seminars at the Museum, finding in the Museum’s new spaces a catalyst to enhanced creativity.

Recognizing that some of the most compelling visual artistry in the last century has been in film and video, the Museum and the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures (College of Literature, Science, and the Arts) will offer curated series and special programs throughout the academic year in UMMA’s new state-of-the-art Helmut Stern Auditorium, outfitted to enable (contemporary and archival) film and digital media projection.

In addition to bringing outside artists for appearances in Ann Arbor, many of these partnerships will foster a range of educational events, residencies, and class visits, extending the intellectual exchange among students, colleagues, and the broader community. And while some programs will relate to current Museum exhibitions or collections themes, many will open out to address critical artistic issues and concerns in the 21st century.

UMMA’s new resource-filled building was a golden opportunity for the Ann Arbor Art Center, which is about to enter its centennial year. Known for offering a wide range of hands-on classes to children and adults in their downtown home, the Ann Arbor Art Center has long sought additional ways to reach out to the University student population. For UMMA, presenting art making opportunities for the non-major is key to building young adult audiences and deepening the feeling for art among the opinion leaders of the future. The Museum’s expected partnership with the Ann Arbor Art Center is hoped to include courses and one-time workshops that will build off of the Museum’s exhibitions and collections and foster lifelong habits of art making.

Likewise, the esteemed and energetic Ann Arbor Summer Festival, a sparkling series of indoor and outdoor performing arts and film events, is continuing to evolve and has been eager to take on more experimental programming in more intimate campus venues than can be provided at Hill Auditorium or Power Center. Collaborative programs highlighting “cutting edge” performance are in the offing for summer 2009 and beyond. Similar partnerships with the University’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, and School of Art and Design are hoped for to showcase the extraordinary talent found here at Michigan.

For many years, visual artists have applied intermedia approaches to their creative production, incorporating music, movement, and film. The visual arts have arguably never been a set of stand-alone media. Now in the 21st century the University of Michigan Museum of Art, in partnership with the extraordinary talents to be found across the University and the Ann Arbor community, has the resources through its new building to be a laboratory for some of the most exciting creative artists of the present, offering unprecedented opportunities to make art a rich and central part of our civic and individual experience. Stay tuned for the details!

Stephanie Rieke
Associate Editor