Detroit Institute of Art

Trip Start May 18, 2003
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Flag of United States  , Michigan
Saturday, March 26, 2005

When telling people I was planning to visit Detroit I was met with the same responses from Canadians and Americans alike: "Why would you want to go there?" I knew that 'Motor City' was heavily industrial and probably not the prettiest of places to visit, but being the birth of Motown, headquarters for General Motors and home of the famous Ford Rouge Factory it had a certain draw for me.

Looking out across the Detroit River from Canada, Detroit has a typical high-rise skyline with the Renaissance Centre being a riverside focal point. This building is where the Detroit Motor show is held every year, and is also home to GM headquarters who are responsible for car brands found all over the world (such as Vauxhall, Opal and Holden).

Shaun explained to me that when he drives up to Wayne State University in Detroit to visit a friend, he passes some of the poorest suburbs in Detroit. The people there live in abject poverty, some without complete roofs on their homes. Not the sort of image that springs to mind when you think of America.

The focus for today was a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is the fifth largest art gallery in the USA. The most famous works of art at the DIA are the Diego Rivera "Detroit Industry" frescoes painted on the walls of the Rivera Court. More on that later. Catching the bus from downtown Detroit to the DIA was an experience in itself. There was a man sitting opposite me talking to someone in the next seat quite openly about the best way to shoot a man with a handgun!

Once inside the DIA I was disappointed to find out that the 3rd floor was closed for renovations. There were still enough works on display to keep me entertained for the entire day, but I would have liked to have explored more of this majestic building. I was surprised that the museum staff allowed visitors to use flash photography within the Institute. Not a policy I agree with at all, considering how delicate some of the works are.

I took advantage of the special Gerard Ter Borch Master Works exhibition ($12 entry) that was currently on display. Some of the pieces were borrowed from the other museums and galleries around the world where I had seen them before, such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the National Gallery in London. Gerard Ter Borch was famous for his ability to paint shimmering material, such as satin dresses, that looked photo realistic. Some of the clothes in his paintings looked very real; quite remarkable to think that he had perfected this technique in the mid seventeenth century.

There were many other exhibits in the Institute, of varying quality and interest. The most notable highlight for me were the Rivera frescoes. There are four painted walls in total, noted as being the finest example of Mexican muralist work in the USA. They depict a montage of Industry in Detroit, commissioned by Edsel Ford in 1932 for $20899. Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Khalo lived in Detroit during the commission. He spent over a month at the Ford Rouge facility, touring the complex and then other industries around the city.

Each wall has a theme:
North & South walls - Races that shape North America, the automobile industry, other Detroit industries (chemical, medical and pharmaceutical).
East wall - Origins of Human Life and Technology.
West wall - Technologies of Air and Water.

Having taken my fill of art for the day it was time to head back to downtown Detroit, as the downtown buses stop running quite early in the evening. As well as buses Detroit has it's own monorail, the People Mover. For 50 cents you can take a short loop around a few blocks of the city. This really has little to do with moving people and taking cars off the road, but more to do with being a tourist attraction. Detroit's own tourist information web site has this statement about transportation: "The best way to get around metro Detroit is by the mode of transportation the city is famous for ? the car." Buried under another couple of levels of the web site, eventually you can find the bus timetables.

Before getting back on the Tunnel bus going back to Canada, there was just enough time to take in some of Detroit's motor history. GM World is housed in the Renaissance Center. Here GM show off their heritage with a collection of cars produced over the decades, all in mint condition.

My first impressions of Detroit were made over a year ago while waiting for a late Greyhound bus on my way to Chicago. Having spent a whole day in this city I was now able to dispel a few myths while others were reinforced. All in all I was glad to get back to Canada at the end of the day.
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