Recognized nationally and beyond as a jewel, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is no well-kept secret. If you’re visiting from out of town, it is a must-see. If you are a longtime resident of the area, perhaps you have taken it for granted and should pay a visit. Or a few visits, really, because the DIA has over 65,000 works of art in its collection, of which a seemingly endless number are on display in over 100 galleries. The collection spans virtually the whole of human history.
Allow me to walk you through my top six reasons you need to visit the DIA.
1. The Detroit Institute of Arts has a rich history and reputation.
Founded for all to enjoy.
A handful of wealthy Detroiters founded the Detroit Museum of Art in 1885. In 1919, the museum took a step uncommon for the time when it became the Detroit Institute of Arts – a public institution.
The first bulletin of the new DIA described the change as “an era when art shall become in its broadest sense democratic, with the museum and its valuable collections actually belonging to the people.”
Dedicated to high quality art.
The DIA has taken the lead in other respects, as well. It was the first American museum to acquire a work by Vincent Van Gogh. More recently, it established one of the first curatorial departments dedicated to African-American art.
Committed to improvement.
The original home of the collections sat on Jefferson Avenue, but by the 1920s, it had expanded as far as the property would allow. So, the Woodward Avenue building we know today began to take shape.
Additions and renovations over the years, the most recent of which was completed in 2007, brought the building to its current square footage of 685,000. In addition to the galleries, it contains a film theater, lecture hall, research library, and conservation lab.
Let’s take a closer look inside….
2. The building is stunning.
Visitors can enter the museum through the main accessible entrance on Farnsworth Street or the front entrance on Woodward. Either way, be sure to catch a glimpse of the front. The view of the 1920s Beaux-Arts architecture will prepare you for what you are about to experience.
With eye-pleasing symmetry, the classical sculptures, spouting fountains, and a wide and grand marble staircase beckon you to pass through the arched entrance.
Continue through the front doors where you can get your tickets settled and then proceed to the Great Hall. In this room, high vaulted ceilings rise above you – you can’t help but look up.
One of the first works of art you will notice is what looks like an enormous tapestry draping on the South wall. It shimmers in what must be 100 different colors.
Take a closer look at the material. Called Amemo, or Mask of Human Kind, artist El Anatsui did not create it from fabric. Across from Amemo, armor and weaponry from the Middle Ages line the wall.
3. You can choose your own adventure at the DIA.
Explore the world.
From the Great Hall, if you head to the galleries behind the armor, you will experience American art. Behind Amemo, European.
Or keep going straight into the Rivera Court to find the flagship Detroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera. Rivera spent several months in the early 1930s, accompanied by Frida Khalo, to work on these murals which the National Park Service designated a Historic Landmark in 2014. You could spend your entire visit studying the detail in 27 panels on all four walls of the court.
But when you’re ready to move on, you have to decide.
Will you venture down to the first floor for African, Native American, Asian, or perhaps Islamic art? Or to the third floor for British and Dutch? Take a turn to the modern galleries? Or head in the opposite direction for ancient Greek and Roman works?
Try not to be overwhelmed and just follow whatever calls to you.
Experience different art forms.
The museum contains many forms of art from all these locales and eras, including traditional paintings, sculptures, photography, mixed media, pottery, silverware, glassware, furniture, jewelry, religious reliquaries, puppets, and the list goes on.
Most of the galleries contain a variety of mediums to keep the experience fresh. Even architecture and design are showcased, not only regarding the building itself but in how the collection items are displayed. Reliefs and other three-dimensional forms adorn the walls as if they were made to be there.
Fireplaces, though unlit, provide a feeling of coziness and the opportunity to display paintings above the mantels and even decorative andirons in the hearths. The gates that partition off galleries have been transported from their past lives, complete with their own placards noting the artist, date, and material.
4. The Detroit Institute of Art offers an immersive experience.
Each gallery takes you to a different place and time. Some are reconstructed rooms – like Whitby Hall, a Philadelphia house constructed in 1754, or the drawing room from an 18th century French chateau. Visitors can step inside the Gothic 16th century chapel, from another French chateau. Or a tomb-like room in the Egyptian galleries displaying ancient sarcophagi from Before the Common Era.
Even the less-immersive galleries have something unique about them, whether it is wall color or a different and bold variety of marble around the entry. The varying levels of light add ambiance, too, in addition to meeting the items’ preservation needs. All these features add up to create a sense of place and time and a richer experience of the art within.
5. The impressive collection of art will wow you.
Wandering around the museum brings many delightful surprises. You can turn a corner and happen upon a Van Gogh. Suddenly you realize you’re surrounded by the greatest hits of the Impressionist movement – Monet, Cassatt, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, and more. And that’s just three of the 100 galleries.
If you have limited time and are not sure what to see, here are a few of my favorites.
My 5 Favorite Exhibits at the DIA:
- Kehinde Wiley’s Officer of the Hussars. Words that come to mind when I look at it: majestic, powerful, stunning. It puts a contemporary spin on the classic portrait genre. You just have to see it in person. It’s currently on the second floor near the special exhibit space.
- The 2,600-year-old Mushhushshu-dragon which once adorned the 5-story Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylonia. First floor in the ancient Middle East gallery.
- Animal figures. They can be found in many sections of the museum. There’s the peacock incense burner from India, the cats and birds representing gods of ancient Egypt, the Medieval lion-shaped vessel, and many others. I’m fascinated by seeing how so many different cultures have used animals as symbols of power and protection.
- The photograph collection. There’s always something different on display in the prints and photographs gallery on the first floor. If you have an interest in photography and its history, you will see some familiar names and images.
- Special exhibits. I’ve mentioned Van Gogh more than once already, and that’s a result of seeing the world-class Van Gogh in America exhibit earlier this year. If you missed it, tough luck, but keep an eye on what’s coming in the future. For most of us, the special exhibits offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see some iconic works of art.
6. The dining and shopping are also part of the experience.
Recharge at the café or food court.
Since you could spend days at the museum, recharge with a snack or lunch at the DIA’s dining locations. Café DIA is a cafeteria-style restaurant offering a variety of foods, including vegetarian and gluten-free options. Kresge Court has salads, sandwiches, charcuterie, and more, as well as espresso, wine, and beer. Not to mention a beautiful court in which to dine.
Pick up a gift at the museum shop.
Round out your visit with a stop at the museum shop. Full of merchandise representing your favorite pieces, original work by local artists, and a lot of fun items in between, you can find something for everyone here.
7 Tips to Get the Most Out of Your DIA Visit
- The DIA recommends purchasing tickets in advance.
- General adult admission is $18, seniors and students with ID are $10, kids are $8. Under 5 get in free.
- Members and residents of the tri-county area (Wayne, Oakland, Macomb) get free general admission.
- Some special exhibits require an additional fee.
- Parking is available in the lot on John R. between Kirby and Warren, just behind the DIA.
- Get hyped for your visit and even view some of the works not currently on physical display by browsing the online collections. You can also go full nerd like me and check out the archives.
- The Detroit Film Theater is also worth a visit. Established in 1974, the theater shows films from across the globe, both contemporary and classic.