Metrotimes | December 19-25, 2001

Oh MONA! The Museum of New Art shoulders the challenge

By: Glen Mannisto

The thing that continues to amaze everyone is the downtown Detroit space that MONA (the Museum of New Art) occupies. Coming through the archeological ruins of Washington Boulevard (where an apparently homeless man standing in front of Saint Al’s Mission sweetens his coffee with the remains of a found bottle of coke), through the formerly majestic lobby of the Book Building, you arrive at an enormous gutted second-floor space that was once multiple rooms. Now, if you squint, it has the dimensions and feeling of a modernist pavilion. Through an expanse of huge windows, you are overlooking Washington Boulevard, at one time the most majestic street in Detroit. Once, red-capped bell boys scurried to taxis in front of the bedazzling brass-fixtured Book Cadillac Hotel, where high rollers tipped cops to double park in front of Scholnick’s, the men’s fine haberdashery, while they went in for a quick fitting with Jacob the tailor, and where lady shoppers had tasty lunches in the big windows of the elegant Stouffer’s Restaurant after a visit to Claire Perone’s.

Now, however, MONA director Jef Bourgeau sits alone in a cubicle at the entry of his vast 10,000-square-foot museum. After my fourth visit in two month, I’m thinking about his promising project and its reception within the art community, and the current MONA exhibition of Italian-born artist Lucio Pozzi.

"Detroit was the last remaining major city in the nation without a contemporary art museum," reads a current promotional flier urging us to become members of "MONA: The Museum for the 21st Century.

"Contribute [by financial subscription] to the rebirth of Detroit’s cultural community," it continues. Chicago has the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and the Renaissance Society; New York has the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), to mention only one of many institutions in that city that answer the need for contemporary art programming and projects.

Bourgeau has been fighting the battle since 1997, when he opened his conceptual Museum of Contemporary Art in Pontiac as "an artist’s project," but failed to gain the full attention of the art community, in part because of the space’s distant location and in part because of Bourgeau’s defensive and naïve iconoclastic appeal. But that’s a thing of the past and Bourgeau has worked hard to bring us a viable institution. When asked about the role of contemporary art museum, Greg Wittkopp, the director of Cranbrook Art Museum, says, "At its best, contemporary art is an agent for change, whether social or political, to open its audience to new ideas and to new perceptions of our world, and the role of the contemporary museum is to pursue that imaginatively."

Among the various metro-Detroit art institutions engaging contemporary art on the museum level, most significantly is, of course, Cranbrook Art Museum, which regularly presents cutting edge exhibitions and has just acquired a gift, the Dr. John and Rose M. Shuey Collection, that will be the substantial core of a collection of modern art for use by the Cranbrook education community and for future programming. The Detroit Institute of Arts has a decent collection of modern art, but its limited contemporary programming serves the Detroit community in a more broad-based, educational way than a contemporary museum should. The Art Gallery of Windsor recently lost the vision of Helga Pakasaar, who left her job as curator of contemporary art, a great blow for what is a pretty conservative community. So in terms of the city of Detroit itself, that puts the focus on Bourgeau and MONA.

MONA’s inaugural exhibition, "Documenta USA" (in which a research archive of some 150 contemporary works of art was created), was most promising in its potential as a resource for the Detroit art audience. Also included were various other documents of contemporary art such as postcards, catalogs, video biographies, a slide library and a bevy of local artists’ works which boded well for MONA’s broad range of interests.

Currently in MONA’s entryway there’s a video of Lucio Pozzi, the subject of MONA’s second exhibition this year, facing the camera straight on, talking about his work. It derives from "Documenta USA," in which artists were invited to submit 15 minutes of video of themselves talking about their work. In a studied, fragile manner, the talking head defends himself from criticisms about the inconsistency of his work, this before the audience has even ventured into the gallery to see it, and he attacks the "virus of explainationists" that he asserts plagues on the art world. And, true to Pozzi’s word, the retrospective of his work reveals everything from abstract to figurative paintings, photographic collages to etchings, huge crowd paintings and a video installation, "color coded" photos of local collectors and a tentative installation. And in the opening week, Pozzi also did a performance with dancers in the gallery that parodied art talks.

While true to his European conceptual roots in his exploration of the multiple veins of artistic production, Pozzi feels at once like a renaissance artist and a dilettante. Most everything in the exhibition has the touch of a gifted artist – sometimes sublime and Pozzi’s calligraphic drawing style is deft – but his work’s marginal engagement with contemporary artistic and cultural issues leaves huge questions of why here at MONA and why especially now when the museum is seeking to reassure us of its viability and attract the philanthropic community. The beautifully produced catalogue, with a historical appreciation of Pozzi by Jan van der Marck, only adds to the confusion – because van der Mark is on the board of governors of MONA and owns Pozzi’s work, so the exhibition can potentially be seen as a conflict of interest.

Meanwhile, the art audience that Bourgeau had tentatively won over with his first exhibition, "Documenta USA," waits for a cultural rebirth on memory-strewn Washington Boulevard and wants to be convinced that Bourgeau has a Mona Lisa on his hands. Perhaps Wayne State art professor Jeffery Abt expresses it best: "The Detroit art community is hungry for a contemporary art museum, but the art audience and philanthropic community is small by comparison with other cities and is divided between the DIA and Cranbrook, and the jury is still out on MONA, and how they define themselves in the future will be crucial."

Most significantly, MONA will host a panel discussion (Sunday, Jan. 6, 2p.m.) on art museums in the 21st century and the participants are some of the most important voices in Detroit’s art community. It will give MONA a chance to be at the center of the discussion and serve as a facilitator in its development.