Detroit’s Latest Model: A Retooled Museum

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The Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the country’s small but classic encyclopedic museums, could be on an open prairie rather than in the center of a city, so faint is the urban buzz around it. Little commercial energy warms the nearby streets. Residential neighborhoods are at a distance. Traffic on the broad thoroughfare running past the museum is sparse, even as this institution, closed for the last six months, celebrates a reopening on Nov. 23 that is being advertised as a resurrection.

There is potentially much to feel good about. A master plan designed by the architect Michael Graves, reorganizing the museum’s interior and expanding its gallery space by 31,000 square feet, has been completed. The permanent collection, with its gems of Flemish, Dutch and American art, has been freshly and inventively reinstalled. A new gallery of African-American art, one of the few of its kind, is in place.

But there is also much to ponder. For years before the shutdown, the financially strained museum was operating at reduced strength, with curtailed hours and closed galleries. The rethought collection is an experiment in progress. Some aspects of it would have given the museum’s Victorian founders a healthy shock; other aspects would have pleased them too well.

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