The Detroit Institute of Arts celebrates the 100th anniversary of it becoming the first U.S. museum to acquire a painting by Vincent Van Gogh during the exhibition “Van Gogh in America” through January 22, 2023. Self-Portrait (1887), the history-making picture, will be joined by instantly recognizable Van Gogh paintings from around the world including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris’ Starry Night (1888), Van Gogh’s Chair (1888) from the National Gallery in London, L’Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux (Marie Julien, 1848–1911) (1888–89) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Bedroom (1889) from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s, The Olive Trees (1889).
“Van Gogh in America” marks the largest Van Gogh exhibition in America in a generation featuring paintings, drawings and prints by Van Gogh himself from museums and private collections worldwide.
One and only location, 74 works in the flesh. Not digital reproductions, the real thing. A lifetime’s scavenger hunt for Van Gogh in one fell swoop.
Van Gogh comes to America
The exhibition reveals how America’s view of Van Gogh’s (1853-1890) work evolved during the first half of the 20th century and his rise to cultural prominence in the United States. Despite his work appearing in over 50 group shows during the two decades following his American debut in the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (commonly known as the Armory Show), it was not until 1935 that Van Gogh was the subject of a solo museum exhibition in the United States, at MoMA.
Van Gogh’s notoriety exists far beyond art circles, however, and it would take popular culture for the Dutch painter to become a celebrity the likes of which can’t be created in museums or galleries alone.
Irving Stone’s 1934 biographical novel “Lust for Life” and its film adaptation in 1956 starring Kirk Douglas shaped America’s popular understanding–and mythologizing–of Van Gogh. The impassioned artist suffering for his work, a lone genius unrecognized in his time, cutting off his ear, committing suicide as a young man, the Van Gogh myth dispatched of nuance, but caught like wildfire in the imagination of an American public always looking for sympathetic heroes.
“After the biopic ‘Lust for Life’ arrived in the movie theaters of mid-century America, Van Gogh’s mythic biography became fully integrated within the American collective imagination,” Jill Shaw, Head of the James Pearson Duffy Department of Modern and Contemporary Art and Rebecca A. Boylan and Thomas W. Sidlik Curator of European Art, 1850 –1970, at the DIA, told Forbes.com.
Van Gogh comes to Detroit
On January 31, 1922, Ralph. H. Booth, president of the City of Detroit Arts Commission, attended the New York auction of dealer Dikran Kelekian’s collection and, on behalf of the museum, successfully bid on Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait. He paid $4,200, the equivalent of about $75,000 in 2022 money. The artist had garnered critical acclaim in Europe, especially in Germany, and was not unknown in America, but the acquisition by DIA was a bold one at the time.
In a note from Wilhelm (William) Valentiner–art adviser to the DIA and its director beginning in 1924–to Ralph Booth two months after the acquisition, Valentiner wrote: “I congratulate the Museum. It seems very courageous to buy works by these remarkable masters–especially Van Gogh seems to me one of the great ones. I hope it will be appreciated by the people in Detroit if not now, I do not doubt, some time in the future.”
Notably, the next four Van Gogh paintings purchased by American museums after Detroit’s were all similarly in the Midwest. Audiences there were galvanized by Van Gogh’s rugged aesthetic featuring subjects from modern, everyday life. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the Saint Louis Art Museum and Toledo Museum of Art paced the nation in Van Gogh. Their important purchases–Olive Trees (1889; Kansas City); Stairway at Auvers (1890; Saint Louis); Houses at Auvers (1890; Toledo); and Wheat Fields with Reaper, Auvers (1890, Toledo)–are all featured in the exhibition.
Van Gogh, of course, never saw America, but America eventually saw him, and “Van Gogh in America” gives the country a new opportunity to see him like never before.
A New Day for Detroit
Long America’s punching bag for industrial collapse, municipal bankruptcy, crime, abandoned buildings, poverty and its failure to adapt to global economic changes, Detroit has worked itself into a bounce-back following its bottom out. Take, for example, The Belt. This formerly disused alley downtown has been reimagined into a vibrant arts, dining and nightlife corridor.
Featuring James Beard award-nominated restaurant Standby, it’s neighboring cocktail bar the Skip, the immersive art environment and music venue Deluxx Fluxx, and the Library Street Collective art gallery, The Belt, so named for its location in what was once the city’s garment district, has been transformed from a darkened setting suitable for a “Batman” movie into a bustling pedestrian destination.
Library Street Collective established itself in the neighborhood 10 years ago with an eye on lifting up the neighborhood. When Quicken Loans announced it would be moving its corporate headquarters, and nearly 2,000 employees, into downtown Detroit in 2010 adjacent to Library Street, a rare opportunity presented itself.
Library Street Collective Co-Founder and Partner at Deluxx Fluxx Anthony Curis sprang into action, approaching Quicken Loans, now Rocket Mortgage, founder and chairman Dan Gilbert as well as the city and neighborhood stakeholders with a vision.
“The city of Detroit has all these great spaces that are oftentimes undiscovered or not thought of in a traditional way,” Curis told Forbes.com.
He was able to sell, “revisioning a public ally in the city and creating a pedestrian friendly public space with art as the catalyst for that space.”
While it took years to accomplish, when The Belt debuted its first “Public Matter” annual rotating exhibition of large public artworks, Curis knew his efforts had been worth it.
“That night, seeing how many people came out, thousands of people showing up in this alley, at that moment it solidified that this was the right move,” he said.
Ever since, Curis, a native Detroiter, and The Belt have been engaged in pushing Detroit’s renaissance. Much of that comes in the form of changing perceptions.
“We have visitors and guests in town weekly, if not daily–artists, supporters, collectors–oftentimes it’s first-time visitors and seeing the reaction so many of them have, the unfortunate expectations they have before showing up versus what they actually see, the realness of the city, is a beautiful moment,” Curis explains. “Detroit is a magical place for people interested in being in a creative environment. That’s why you’re seeing so many artists here, who’ve been here for a long time, but also so many others who want to be here and have been moving here for the last years to decades now. If you’re looking for a city that has opportunity and is relatively affordable comparatively to many places in the country that have a focus on arts and culture, it’s a great place to be.”
Will it last?
Curis thinks so.
“The most sustainable change I’ve seen seems like it’s been since 2010-ish and moving forward,” he said, pegging the turnaround, not coincidentally, with the Quicken Loans relocation. “Previously, there were a lot of starts and stops, but it feels like a lot of those (encouraging) pockets and moments and that snowball has seemed to get big enough that even in times of hardship, from that point on this feels like it actually has its promise.”
Native Detroiter James Richmond-Edwards highlights the exhibition program at Library Street Collective this fall. New paintings from the rising star in contemporary art will be on view and for sale from October 15 through November 30.
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