Detroit Institute of Arts

With all the holiday dinners/shopping/wrapping/etc going on the past few weeks, I haven’t had much of a chance to do any history exploring/blogging. However, my husband and I found ourselves with no plans last Sunday and so we decided to get out and do something downtown. We went to the Detroit Institute of Arts, mainly to visit the Faberge exhibit that is currently on display, but also to just generally wander around and look at art. While fascinating, I won’t be reviewing the Faberge exhibit as it isn’t exactly Michigan history related (although you should totally go check it out). The DIA, on the  other hand, has a long history as one of Detroit’s preeminent cultural institutions and contains some fabulous pieces that directly relate to local history.

The DIA from Woodward Avenue

The DIA from Woodward Avenue

I think many metro Detroiters don’t realize that the DIA isn’t your average local art museum – its collection is considered to be among the top 6 in the United States. Not too shabby! Well known for its diversity, the DIA contains significant artwork from not only Europe and the Americas, but also from Asia, Oceania, the Islamic world and Ancient Rome and Greece. You can easily spend hours wandering around the different exhibits. Best of all, if you are from Wayne, Oakland or Macomb Counties (or if you attend on a Ford Free Sunday) the museum is free!

The story of how the DIA came about is somewhat interesting. James Scripps, owner of The Detroit News, chronicled his family’s 1881 trip to Europe in the paper, including their many trips to art museums around the continent. The public loved the feature, which inspired William Brearley, the ad manager at the paper, to organize an art exhibition in 1883. The exhibition then did so well that Brearley decided that Detroit should have its own art museum. He persuaded many local businessmen to donate money (including Scripps, who donated $50,000) and the Detroit Museum of Art (as it was originally called) was incorporated in 1885 and opened its doors in 1888.

The museum was initially housed in a Romanesque building on Jefferson Avenue. In 1919, it was renamed the Detroit Institute of Arts and given as a gift to the City of Detroit. The museum moved to its current location on Woodward in 1927. Designed by Paul Cret, the building is in a Beaux-Arts style with multiple expansions added over the years. Many prominent Detroiters have supported the museum over the years, including Charles Lang Freer, Robert Hudson Tannahill  and the Dodges, Firestones and Fords (Eleanor Ford  gifted $1 million in 1979 to create the Department of African, Oceanic and New World Cultures).

Some interesting anecdotes: among the many pieces donated or bought by the museum in its early years was Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait, the first van Gogh to be displayed in an American museum.  The DIA also became on of the first museums to return Nazi plunder by returning Claude Monet’s The Seine at Asnières to its original owner in 1949.

Vincent van Gogh's Self Portrait

Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait

My absolute favorite thing to see at the DIA is the Detroit Industry murals, painted by Diego Rivera between 1932 and 1933. Rivera was commissioned by Edsel Ford to paint murals relating to Detroit and the development of industry. Rivera studied the massive Ford Rouge plant for inspiration and ended up painting sections of four walls of a court in the museum, rather than the planned one wall. The images depict workers on the factory line as well as other aspects of industrialization, including airplanes, office workers and a factory administration. It also includes an image of an infant growing underground to remind us that all human endeavor is rooted in the earth. Altogether, the images both celebrate and question the increasing industrialization of society. For example, two contrasting panels show the benefits and the drawbacks of industrialization by showing a baby receiving a vaccination in one and workers creating poison gas in another. The vaccination panel is also commonly seen as a modern take on the nativity scene, with the doctor as Joseph, nurse as Mary, and three scientists in the background as the Magi. The murals also celebrate diversity by displaying many races working together on the line.

Detroit Industry Mural - South Wall

Detroit Industry Mural – south wall

Detroit Industry Mural - close up of workers on north wall

Detroit Industry Mural – close up of workers on north wall

Many people, including himself, though it was Rivera’s best work. However, there was also a great deal of criticism directed at the murals. The Detroit News called it “vulgar” and “unamerican.” Some people objected the the nudes in the paintings, or to the modernization of religious imagery. And many, many people were concerned with the depiction of the power and value of the proletariat workers, which they saw as an outgrowth of Rivera’s communist sympathies. The antipathy towards the murals peaked in the McCarthy era, forcing the DIA to set up a sign reading:

“Rivera’s politics and his publicity seeking are detestable. But let’s get the record straight on what he did here. He came from Mexico to Detroit, thought our mass production industries and our technology wonderful and very exciting, painted them as one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. This came after the debunking twenties when our artists and writers found nothing worthwhile in America and worst of all in America was the Middle West. Rivera saw and painted the significance of Detroit as a world city. If we are proud of this city’s achievements, we should be proud of these paintings and not lose our heads over what Rivera is doing in Mexico today.”

I think the murals are fascinating, in part because they show a celebration of Detroit’s manufacturing and industrial might in a way that is not seen much today. Detroit is simply not the manufacturing base it once was and American society today no longer glorifies factories but sees them as a necessary evil, instead of as symbols of progress. I also think it is interesting to get a glimpse of how industry was viewed when it was in its infancy, and these murals do an excellent job of showing the conflicting emotions of the time. Finally, I simply love that these murals are something different. I love a good landscape or portrait as much as the next person, but it is nice to mix things up – and a room-sized mural of a factory line does just that.

Go check out the DIA if you’ve never been there before, or if it has been years since your last visit. You’ll like it, I promise!



Don Gonyea, “Detroit Industry: The Murals of Diego Rivera,” NPR, April 22, 2009.

Michael Hodges, “It Began with an Art Show,” The Detroit News, November 6, 2007.

About the DIA,” Detroit Institute of Arts website


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