Even though Michigan State University, my alma mater, is only about 65 miles from my hometown, and despite repeatedly visiting the campus in memory, I’ve only been back twice. The first time, many years ago, was to take my son Sev to see Magic Johnson play a celebrity basketball game for the home crowd. The second time was about a month ago when my aunt, my cousin Renata and I went to the Broad (pronounced Brohd) Art Museum, which opened last November.
The Broad is a work of architectural art, a canted parallelogram of a building with a façade of pleated glass and stainless steel that practically jumped out at us as we drove slowly down Grand River Avenue, assuming (incorrectly) that it’d be hard to spot. Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-British architect who designed the futuristic structure, won the Pritzer Prize (the “Nobel” of prizes for architecture) in 2004. She was the first woman to do so. Design Museum describes her work as having “multiple perspective points and fragmented geometry to evoke the chaos of modern life.”
So, you might ask, who is the forward-looking individual responsible for bringing this world-class museum to a Midwestern university campus recognized far more for its sports teams than art? The man is Eli Broad, son of immigrant Lithuanian Jews, born in the Bronx but a Michigander since age 6, an alumnus of MSU (cum laude in accounting and economics, class of 1954), and the youngest person in Michigan to have earned a CPA. After he graduated, Eli married 18-year-old Edythe Lawson, eventually borrowed $25,000 from her father and went into building houses. The only man to have founded two Fortune 500 companies, Forbes ranks him as the 55th-richest man in America.
Eli and Edye Broad also are among the 114 billionaires who have taken the Giving pledge that Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates initiated, although they have been giving hundreds of millions to science, art and education for the past four decades without any prompting. Their Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and The Broad Art Foundation alone have assets of $2.4 billion.
When we entered through the futuristic, almost hidden door, we stood stock-still, astounded by the hundreds of photographs of faces lined up in rows and completely covering the two high walls on either side of us. The black and white faces seemed to be almost snapshots of ordinary people, and we wondered who they were and what they were doing there. Quickly, we searched for the accompanying label and read that the photos were of the first 160 local people who entered the new museum. Taken by the conceptual artist Jochen Gerz, “The Gift” is a “participatory and collaborative” work that creates a dialogue between the museum and the community at large. It seemed a perfect greeting for a museum that’s committed to exploring international contemporary culture and ideas through art. Needless to say, admission is free.
The exhibition in July was made up of contemporary Brazilian artists and called Blind Field, and my aunt called it “Something I don’t understand at all.” That is just the point, I decided. Without the text on the labels to provide context, in some cases it would be almost impossible to infer what the artist says. This art was as much philosophy and sociology as it was metaphor. This art demanded discussion.
Over and over again, what The Broad emphasizes is perspective: where we stand physically (upstairs, downstairs; Carson City, East Lansing, Iraq, Israel, Rio de Janiero) and how our range of vision (narrow or broad) affects what we see and how we see it.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.