Detroit, MI

The European beginning of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Author Ed Anderson
Today's Detroit Institute of Art sits on Woodward but it wasn't always the locationPhoto byWikimedia

Today, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is a legendary part of the city's identity. During troubled times, it is a beacon of hope to the residents. Many people around the state and even the country flock to Midtown to check out the works of art on display in the museum.

But not many know the iconic museum's origins and how it became such a player within the art world.

Back in 1881, The Detroit News Owner James E. Scripps took his family on a five-month European vacation. While on his trip, he kept journals about the art that they saw particularly in Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the newspaper magnate began to publish his journals in his paper. There was an appetite for art in the Motor City, so he continued to work the angle as much as he could. He also began to form plans to expand the series into something more permanent.

He published Five Months Abroad. It was a bestseller and proved yet again that the residents of Metro Detroit wanted art. Scripps decided that now was the time to figure out how to give the people what they wanted.

Historic Detroit reports that Scripps recruited some members of his family, business associates, and friends to help fund a new exhibit at the urging of William Brearly. Everyone put their heads together and began talking about what it should look like and where they should set it up.

Nearly everyone agreed it should be in Detroit proper. The city was the center of the social world in Michigan and they would attract the most guests that way.
Inside the modern DIAPhoto byDIA

First Life

The exhibit blew away expectations. After seeing how much people craved to see the artwork, Brearly challenged the wealthy people in and around Detroit to donate $1,000 each to help fund a new museum. Which they did.

In fact, Historic Detroit says that Brearly took in a lot of money. Scripps donated nearly $50,000 for the new museum. He and Scripps began talking about where they should build it. Finding the perfect location for it, proved to be much more difficult than they imagined.

They found it. Building started in 1883 and took a little more than five years to complete. The Detroit Museum of Arts opened in 1888. It was located on Jefferson Avenue.

People lined up around the block in order to see the pieces that were procured for the new institution. The success pleased those who donated money to see the project get off the ground and helped attract tourists to Detroit. It was a win all the way around.

According to the Detroit Historical Society, as the newness of the museum wore off, the cost went up. The building needed repairs. Staffers were paid quite well. Yet, revenue was going down. The artwork was taken off display because there wasn't enough room for everything.

A decision in 1928 to close the museum was met with some sorrow from Detroit residents. But they weren't being given the full story.
The original building for the Detroit Museum of ArtPhoto byDetroit Public Library

New Life As DIA

The museum's board of directors decided to change the name to the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1919. They hoped the name change would bring back visitors and set the gallery apart from others in the region.

There was another decision made that helped change the course of the museum's history. They transferred ownership to the City of Detroit, making it a department of the city. This helped shore up the budget and gave the city a crown jewel to crow about in tourism advertisements.

When the Jefferson location closed down, it was announced that the museum would live on. A new building was constructed on Woodward Avenue. It opened in 1928. People were ecstatic about the news and began making plans to come to see the revitalized attraction.

According to the DIA's own account of its history, one of the city's first moves to ensure the success of the museum was to hire a well-known art director. They lured Wilhelm Valentiner to lead the museum. Under his leadership, the museum bought the first Van Gough owned by an American institution.

Using the DIA's history, the city asked the wealthy to donate money to it. Many of them took the request to heart and set up trusts to ensure the longevity of the museum.

Which is one of the reasons that it is still open today.

The history of the beloved museum should be told throughout the city. It is fascinating and such a part of Detroit's DNA that it should not be forgotten.

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Ed Anderson is a true crime and gossip writer from Detroit, Michigan. Ed is the author of several true crime books, most recently Financing Doubt.

Rochester, MI

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