Ask any art aficionado in Paris or London, Los Angeles or Tokyo to name the most important art institution between New York and Chicago and they aren’t going to say the Detroit Institute of Arts, the University of Michigan Museum of Art or the Toledo Museum of Art. These are world-class venues that never fail to thrill and amaze. But those in the know will utter but one word: Cranbrook. Now, after closing for two years to complete a $21 million expansion and renovation, the Cranbrook Museum of Art has reopened to the public.
Cranbrook has been called “America’s Bauhaus,” after the highly influential pre-war Bauhaus school in Germany that combined crafts and fine arts and was associated with the “modern” approach to design that it publicized and taught. (Think Mies van der Rohe.) Indeed, Cranbrook and the Bauhaus were both initiated in the early 20th century and both were involved in teaching as well as creating art. But, whereas the Bauhaus was shuttered in 1933 with the rise of Nazism, Cranbrook has continued to flourish and influence design to this day.
Cranbrook was the brainchild of the newspaper magnates George Booth and his wife Ellen Scripps Booth. They built their palatial home (“Cranbrook House,” designed by Albert Kahn) on 320 rolling, wooded acres.They envisioned a surrounding educational community in which art and science, teaching and creation were integrated in a single, organic whole. In 1925 Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen was commissioned to begin designing the buildings and landscapes that comprises Cranbrook today. These include a K-12 boys and girls school, a science center with observatory, a formal Greek theater, an elaborate system of ponds, lakes and waterways, and a variety of gardens – formal gardens, a bog garden, herb garden, wildflower garden and a breathtaking Oriental garden. Saarinen designed a home for himself for which formal tours are available. In 1931 Swedish artist Carl Milles was commissioned to create the amazing sculptures and fountains which grace the grounds and, of course, the Academy of Art of which the museum is only a part. The Booths envisioned artists-in-residence from a variety of disciplines who would create and teach graduate students, all living and working together on campus. And it worked. Cranbrook became such a dominant cultural force that almost everyone recognizes products that originated there even if they don’t know the names Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll and Ralph Rapson. Eliel Saarinen’s son, Eero, went on to design Dulles International Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, among other projects. But it’s not just the mid-century stuff. New York’s newest subway cars are from Antenna Design which is co-directed by Masamichi Udagawa, a Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate.
My time there
I attended Cranbrook School for Boys, Mother of Men until I was expelled in 10th grade, or 4th Form as it was called. (Mitt Romney had graduated several years earlier: Whatever happened to him?) Did we appreciate the art and architecture that is the envy of the world at one of a handful of schools not on the east coast listed in the “Preppy Handbook?” Of course not. It was just halls and walls and tables and chairs and mean teachers, hard courses and lousy food. Silly us. Today I see something new every time I visit and I can never get enough. And now there is something that is actually new with the addition and renovation to the Museum of Art.
If you are going to see it for yourself, let me just point out a few items of interest. The 20,000-square-foot new (“Collections”) addition does not in any way take away from Sarrinen’s brilliant original. The openness of the new addition is above all devoted to making all 6,000 pieces of the permanent collection available for easy viewing. It is also designed for teaching and learning. The opening exhibition, “No Man is an Island: New Dialogues With the Cranbrook Collection,” features 50 pieces from the permanent collection, each paired with a contemporary artwork many created specifically for the show. They are arranged to compare and contrast within six thematic categories: Craft, Site, Comfort, Resistance, Process and Fiction. The $10 million lead gift for the renovation was made by Maxine and Stuart Frankel and family, the same family that provided the lead gift for the renovation of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Boy, that family must like art. Cranbrook is less than an hour’s drive from downtown Ann Arbor and involves only three turns. Take M-14 to Telegraph and turn north. Go to Long Lake Road and turn east. Go to Woodward Avenue and turn south, and it’s a few hundred yards down on your right. Cranbrook, 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills. www.cranbrook.edu