UMMA Revisited

UMMA Revisited

By Jordan Andre Moore

The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and its apse are a testament to the rich aesthetic and architectural history of the university. In Alumni Memorial Hall, the apse’s towering 40-foot skylight and classical columns have served as the backdrop for more than a century’s worth of art exhibitions, poetry readings, concerts, weddings, yoga lessons, and—well, the list goes on. Now, as the apse takes on a new title in honor of Lizzie (AB ’94) and Jonathan Tisch, Leaders & Best revisits the history of the museum and one of its iconic exhibition spaces.

 


UMMA’s Origins

The story begins in 1855, six years before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, and decades before civic museums like The Toledo Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and The Detroit Institute of Arts began springing up around the Midwest. Henry Simmons Frieze, a U-M professor of Latin who would serve three times as acting president of the university, set off for Europe in search of teaching materials. He began purchasing ancient plaster casts, terra cotta statuary, and fragments of architecture—works that would expand his students’ understanding and imagination of the classical world.

The following year, the majority of Frieze’s collection was put on display in South College (the South Wing of University Hall), while other pieces were scattered about the Ann Arbor campus. It was a humble beginning for the oldest public art gallery in Michigan. No one—maybe not even Professor Frieze—would have guessed that his modest collection would grow to such proportions, let alone that it would mark the beginning of one of the country’s most impressive university art collections.

In the waning years of the Civil War, a group of alumni veterans came together with the idea of creating a memorial building to honor alumni who died serving in the war. Determined to pay tribute to their fellow veterans, the group raised thousands of dollars from alumni and friends of Michigan. But after raising about half of the subscriptions required to fund the memorial’s construction, momentum slowed. Eventually, plans came to a full stop. Alumni Memorial Hall would have to wait a few more decades to be built.

Meanwhile, the university’s art collections only continued to grow. Thanks to generous donations and a modest budget for purchasing new works, a more-than-modest museum began to take shape.

 

One of the museum’s earliest and most notable acquisitions was of Randolph Rogers’ exquisite marble sculpture, Nydia, The Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii. Purchased with funds raised by community members, Nydia became a prized piece for the museum and the Ann Arbor community. It’s held a special place in UMMA’s collections not only for its craftsmanship, but also because Rogers spent his childhood in Ann Arbor before gaining international acclaim as a sculptor.

The collections also welcomed a large bequest from Henry Clay Lewis of Coldwater, Michigan. Lewis was a banker who had amassed considerable personal wealth, and with no formal education in art, decided to build his own collection. Lewis was an altruist; his primary interest was increasing his community’s exposure to fine art, and his public collection became one of the first open galleries in the United States. Lewis’ eventual contributions to the university included numerous original works and statuary from European galleries, including a marble bust of George Washington (also by Rogers) that can often be found watching over the apse.

By the end of the 19th century, Nydia, Washington, and most of the museum’s other works had found a home on the second and third floors of the Old University Library. But as the library collection expanded, the likes of Nydia and Washington began bumping shoulders with the stacks.

Thankfully, plans for Alumni Memorial Hall were once again gaining traction. A Memorial Committee of the Alumni Association was formed to drive the project. Soon enough, the Board of Regents committed funds and the real estate to construct the hall, under the conditions that it would also have space to house the university’s art collections.

By May 1910, the University of Michigan Museum of Art was poised to become a world-class art museum. More than 50 years after its inception, the neoclassical Alumni Memorial Hall looked out over State Street for the first time, with the apse as its central exhibition space.

Later that year, the university’s first exhibition was on display. The exhibition was sponsored by esteemed art collector and Detroit native Charles Lang Freer (AMHon 1904), who offered an intimate look at his robust collection of Asian and American art. Though UMMA was not its own unit yet—it would separate from the Museum of Archaeology in 1946—it was already displaying some of the world’s most sought-after works. Today, you can visit his collection in the renowned Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

A Modern UMMA

Time marched on. History saw its way through two world wars. By the 1950s, postwar America was booming. Rock ‘n’ roll was on the radio. Families were growing. The stock market was climbing. And midcentury modern style was in vogue.

To modernize Alumni Memorial Hall and accommodate the museum’s growing role in the Michigan community, UMMA installed Unistrut scaffolding in the apse. The web of metal frames gave the apse additional gallery space and a large central staircase to the second floor. The open elegance of the apse that echoed classical ideals of order and symmetry became a modern metallic construction of spatial efficiency. Despite these renovations, UMMA once again outgrew its living quarters.

In response, the museum officially inhabited all of Alumni Memorial Hall in 1966. For 20 years, UMMA and its esteemed collections had been living with roommates. Now, they finally had a space of their own.

Aesthetic taste had changed, and UMMA wanted to ensure that the museum no longer felt like it was “only one of several tenants in the building,” as former UMMA director Brett Waller described it. So along with other renovations, all of the Unistrut scaffolding—including the two-story staircase—was removed.

Nydia and other works from the “Collection Ensemble.”
Nydia and other works from the “Collection Ensemble.”

Between the programs, classes, and collections housed in Alumni Memorial Hall, UMMA put its renovated space to good use. Yet, booking schedules were tight. Events had to be put on hold. Guests could only view about 3% of the museum’s collections—the rest had to be kept in storage due to a lack of exhibition space.

By the 2000s, UMMA started exploring how it could further accommodate and extend its impact in the community. In 2009, the museum opened a 53,000-square-foot addition—the Maxine and Stuart Frankel and the Frankel Family Wing—and updated Alumni Memorial Hall thanks to generous support led by Maxine (AB ’66, DFAHon ’16) and Stuart Frankel (BBA ’61). Renovations restored the apse’s skylight, original moldings, and other structural components, bringing to life the space most emblematic of the UMMA we know today. All told, the project allowed UMMA to display 10% of its collections, and opened space for the museum to host over 900 annual public programs, attracting around 240,000 visitors each year.

Over the course of a century, the University of Michigan’s art collections went from “homeless” to one of the most extensive and celebrated art museums in the country.

The Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Apse in 2019

Today, the spirit of support for the arts at Michigan—first sparked by the likes of Frieze, Simmons, alumni veterans, and so many others—carries on. Recently, Lizzie (AB ’94) and Jonathan Tisch donated more than $2.8 million to UMMA to enhance the museum’s exhibitions program. “Jon and I are thrilled to support UMMA and arts engagement at U-M,” Lizzie said. “We believe that providing opportunities for students to engage with art during the formative years of their university experience is essential to their development as global citizens.”

Lizzie Tisch sharing remarks at an UMMA After Hours reception.
Lizzie Tisch sharing remarks at an UMMA After Hours reception.

In recognition of the couple’s ongoing support, one of campus’ most cherished spaces will take on a new title: the Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Apse.

Apropos of the Tischs’ gift, UMMA launched its first major reinstallation in the apse in over a decade. The “Collection Ensemble” is an intentionally eclectic exhibition, featuring works by 41 artists. It exchanges the previous focus on European and American painting for a broad mix of American, European, African, and Asian art from across the museum’s remarkable, disparate holdings. You’ll see works like Rogers’ Nydia on display alongside other works making their first-ever appearance in an UMMA exhibition.

“The exhibition recasts the role of the collection as an active, creative, sometimes startling source of material and ideas, open for debate and interpretation,” said UMMA’s Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Vera Grant.

“Collection Ensemble” also marks a turning point for installations in Alumni Memorial Hall. “We love Alumni Memorial Hall and its history, but for the last 10 years, its display has been static and narrow in scope. There was no art by living artists, and no art by anyone outside Europe and the United States. We wanted our diverse public to see the breadth and complexity of what we have and to also see work by artists of color and women,” said UMMA Director Christina Olsen.

“Collection Ensemble” is a rich example of how support like the Tischs’ impacts UMMA’s exhibitions. As its title suggests, the “Collection Ensemble” brings together disparate parts of UMMA’s collections, much in the way it hopes to reach a broader community by making the museum more relevant and accessible for guests. “When I first arrived at UMMA, many students and visitors told me that they felt excluded from the museum and that the art on view was very removed from their life or concerns. I wanted to change that,” Olsen said.

Creating a more inviting and inclusive space is central to the museum’s mission. UMMA is a gathering place for the entire Michigan community. It’s where the intersection of life and art happens—where centuries of art is enjoyed, discussed, and celebrated.

And philanthropy has helped transform that space since day one. What began as a mobile collection of classical art and architecture has bloomed into a world-class nexus of global artwork. From the grassroots movement of a group of Civil War veterans to the transformational support of families like the Tischs, acts of philanthropy have defined the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

With exhibitions like “Collection Ensemble” gracing the Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Apse, it’s clear that UMMA will continue to be a dynamic hub for the arts for years to come.

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