Michigan Utopian Art School Looks Back and Forward
This article is part of our last special report on museums, which emphasizes reopening, reinvention and resilience.
On a bucolic campus in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, about 20 miles outside of Detroit, the Cranbrook Academy of Art began in 1932 with a pretty radical proposition. Rather than offering a program taught by academics, it has put artists, architects, and designers into residence with studio resources and empowered its students to find their own way in a tight-knit creative community.
While this is akin to other early 20th-century Modernism experiments, 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 undergraduate and undergraduate arts programs, which are now dominated by studio lessons and peer review.
“It’s really an orientation to professional practice – here’s a studio for you, and now you have to create 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”, scheduled for June 18th. The interdisciplinary spirit of Cranbrook by mixing works from different eras and artists from the departments of architecture, ceramics, design, fiber, metals, painting, photography, printmaking and sculpture.
Mr. Blauvelt, who is American-Japanese, dated Cranbrook as a design student in the late 1980s with famous 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 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 cocooned in a wealthy suburb, “the experience itself is already kind 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 grounds also include private schools for students from kindergarten to high school.) In the first gallery of “With Eyes Opened,” titled 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.
In this first gallery will also be interspersed with 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, 2011 graduate in 3 D design , who assembled plastic objects thrown into a wild-shaped chair entirely hand-rolled in skirt fiber.
Another gallery, called Salon Abstraction, will feature paintings by José Joya of the Philippines and Wook-Kyung Choi of Korea, who each created innovations in Abstract Expressionism at Cranbrook in the 1950s and 1960s.
“These numbers came to Cranbrook on an international study and returned to their home country at one point and influenced the culture there,” Mr. Blauvelt said. McArthur Binion, the first black artist to receive his Masters 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 Soundsuits – 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 young torso by Marshall Fredericks (who went on to make 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, ceramic sculptural 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 to Cranbrook made her understand, “I could do anything and everything, I had no limits,” she said. The first black woman to graduate from the Metallurgy Department, she found the environment to be alienating, too. “For two years, I was the only black woman on campus, besides administration and housekeeping,” she said.
Recognizing the importance of further diversifying students and faculty, Jennifer Gilbert, Chair of the Cranbrook Academy and Museum Board of Trustees, and her husband, Dan Gilbert, Founder and Chairman of Quicken Loans (who contributed to revitalize downtown Detroit), donated $ 30 million to the school this spring. It will go towards 20 full scholarships for students of color, as well as endow the initiative in perpetuity, relieve the existing scholarship fund, and attract artists of color as visiting professors over the next five 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 remain in – 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 similar schools.
Ms. Massey, 39, bought 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 metallurgy, there is no workshop, there is no welding for the city’s high school students,” she says. “A foundation must be established.” She is planning a festival this summer to activate her site.
In 2019, Mr. Binion, now 74, used his own professional success to start 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 based in Chicago, this painter will spend 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 foundation seminar program 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.”