Michigan Utopian Art School Looks Back and Forward


This article is part of our last special file on museums, which focuses on reopening, reinvention and resilience.

On a bucolic campus in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, about 20 miles from Detroit, the Cranbrook Academy of Art began in 1932 with a pretty radical proposition. Rather than offering a program taught by academics, he put working artists, architects and designers in residence as well as studio resources and let his students find their own way in a tight-knit creative community.

Although it is akin to other experiments in early 20th-century Modernism, such as the Bauhaus in Germany and Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Cranbrook – which began offering master’s degrees in fine arts in 1942 – is the only survivor of these utopian schools. Across the country, he has greatly influenced graduate and undergraduate art programs, which are now dominated by studio lessons and peer review.

“It’s really a professional practice orientation – here’s a studio for you, and now you have to do it,” said Andrew Blauvelt, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, which is also part of the 320-acre campus. He delved deeply into the history of the school in the exhibition “With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art Since 1932”, which will be presented there on June 18th. Including approximately 275 works by more than 220 alumni and faculty members, it highlights Cranbrook’s interdisciplinary spirit by mixing works from various eras and artists from the departments of Architecture, Ceramics, Design, Fiber, Metals, painting, photography, engraving and sculpture.

Mr. Blauvelt, who is Japanese-American, dated Cranbrook as a design student in the late 1980s with renowned black multidisciplinary artist Nick Cave. At the time, they were among the few minority artists in residence, and Mr. Blauvelt has particularly focused on recovering some of the lesser-known stories of artists of color who have passed through Cranbrook.

“There weren’t many,” said Mr Blauvelt, who included works by sculptor Carroll Harris Simms, the first black artist to graduate from Cranbrook, in 1950, and portrait painter Artis Lane, the first black woman to attend, in 1951. With a maximum of 150 graduate students on campus, which is tucked away in an affluent suburb, “the experience itself is already sort of isolating,” he said .

Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, the academy’s first president, who designed and built the Cranbrook campus, is among the artists most often identified with the institution. (The land also includes private schools for students from kindergarten to high school.) In the first gallery of “With Eyes Opened”, called Architecture of the Interior, Saarinen will be represented alongside designers Charles and Ray Eames (who performed met at Cranbrook), Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, and Eliel’s son Eero Saarinen, all of whom had early experiences in furniture that became classics of Mid-Century Modernism.

This first gallery will also include works by unexpected artists such as Urban Jupena, a 1970 graduate of the fiber department, who integrated a sofa and a table in a landscape of hairy wool, and Jay Sae Jung Oh, a 2011 graduate in 3- D design. , who glued discarded plastic objects into a wild-shaped chair fully hand-rolled in fiber skirt.

Another gallery, called Salon Abstraction, will feature paintings by José Joya of the Philippines and Wook-Kyung Choi of Korea, who each created innovations within Abstract Expressionism at Cranbrook in the 1950s and 1960s.

“These characters came to Cranbrook for international study and returned to their home countries at some point and influenced the culture there,” Mr. Blauvelt said. McArthur Binion, the first black artist to earn his MFA in painting at Cranbrook, will be represented here by an abstract work in melted pencil on aluminum panel from his 1973 exhibition.

In the Sculpture Court gallery, one of Mr. Cave’s colorful sound combinations – a figurative sheath that can be worn during performances – will be juxtaposed with that of Duane Hanson. realistic sculpture of a 1970s high school student and precocious torso by Marshall Fredericks (who later made the “Spirit of Detroit” sculpture downtown in 1958). The importance of craftsmanship in Cranbrook will be highlighted featuring large-scale fiber pieces by Sonya Clark and Olga de Amaral, sculptural ceramic works by Toshiko Takaezu, and earrings rooted in hip-hop culture and scaled to monumental proportions by the interdisciplinary artist Tiff Massey.

For Ms. Massey, a native of Detroit who came to school as a jeweler and graduated in 2011, cross-pollination in Cranbrook made her realize that “I could do anything and everything, I had no limits,” she said. The first black woman to graduate from the goldsmith’s department, she found the environment to be alienating too. “For two years, I was the only black woman on campus, besides administration and janitorial,” she said.

Recognizing the importance of further diversifying students and faculty, Jennifer Gilbert, President of the Cranbrook Academy and Museum Council, and her husband, Dan Gilbert, Founder and Chairman of Quicken Loans (who helped revitalize the downtown Detroit), donated $ 30 million to the school this spring. It will go to 20 full scholarships for students of color, as well as endow the initiative in perpetuity, relieve the existing scholarship fund, and bring in artists of color as visiting professors over the five coming years.

The high cost of top-ranked American art schools – Cranbrook’s tuition, around $ 78,000 for the two-year program, isn’t even the most expensive – has made access a problem. nationwide.

“I have spent several years listening to the needs of the institution,” said Ms. Gilbert. “We hope to create sustainable mechanisms that foster a more inclusive community. “

As more and more Cranbrook graduates stay or return to Detroit as a relatively affordable place to work, with a vibrant and growing art scene, some have launched local initiatives to help young black artists. These efforts could create a pipeline to Cranbrook and other schools like this one.

Ms. Massey, 39, purchased a 30,000 square foot site in Detroit, where, with the help of a grant from the Kresge Foundation, she started a non-profit organization called Blackbrook for the youth in her neighborhood. “As far as I know, there is no goldsmith, there is no workshop, there is no welding for high school students in the city,” she said. “A foundation must be laid. She is planning a festival this summer to activate her site.

In 2019, Mr. Binion, now 74, leveraged his own professional success to launch and fund the Modern Ancient Brown Foundation. Through various grants and programs, he supports young artists of color in Detroit, where he grew up. Long-settled in Chicago, this painter will be spending a lot of time in Detroit, starting this year, teaching undergraduates at local universities and helping young artists get started.

“We’re going to have a lot of undergraduate artists coming out of our seminar program at the foundation who would be great candidates for admission” at Cranbrook, Binion said. “I’m coming back to Detroit because artists of color need to lead these conversations and guide the entry of young artists so they can access greater opportunities.”


Kayleen C. Rice

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