DIA’s col­lec­tion has na­tional lus­ter

Mu­seum eas­ily sits among top in the coun­try


It’s com­mon­place around town to hear that the Detroit In­sti­tute of Arts has “the fifth-best col­lec­tion” in the United States. True? And if so, what in the world does that mean?

DIA di­rec­tor Gra­ham Beal, who says he was work­ing on this the other night while wait­ing for a flight, ex­plains there are two stan­dard mea­sures of “en­cy­clo­pe­dic” art mu­se­ums — square footage and an­nual op­er­at­ing bud­get, and in both re­spects the DIA has long ranked fifth or sixth.

Beal says, “We used to be the fifth-largest in size, but Hous­ton jumped over us with their new build­ing.” He tips his hat at their di­rec­tor, Peter C. Marzio, adding with a shrug, “But they don’t have a col­lec­tion.”

Detroit surely does — part of the legacy of stu­pen­dous wealth in the early 20th cen­tury when Euro­pean and other mas­ter­pieces were go­ing for a song.

Beal, and many other cu­ra­tors na­tion­wide, di­vide the top Amer­i­can art mu­se­ums into two tiers. Crown­ing them all is New York’s Metropoli­tan Mu­seum and Bos­ton’s Mu­seum of Fine Arts.

Be­neath that, he says, four au­gust in­sti­tu­tions el­bow one an­other for promi­nence, with each tak­ing the top slot, de­pend­ing on the spe­cific col­lec­tion — the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago, the DIA, the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art and Cleve­land Mu­seum of Art.

“If you rank Asian art tops, you’ll pick Cleve­land,” he says. “Ital­ian paint­ing and sculp­ture? That’s the DIA, and the same is true of Amer­i­can paint­ing. The Im­pres­sion­ists? That’s clearly Chicago.”

Cu­ra­tors around the coun­try are loath to put a nu­mer­i­cal rank­ing on col­lec­tions, but al­most unan­i­mously praise Detroit. Some place Chicago a notch above Detroit, Philadel­phia and Cleve­land, but that comes down to quib­bling.

“Detroit is one of North Amer­ica’s great en­cy­clo­pe­dia mu­se­ums,” says the di­rec­tor of the Dal­las Mu­seum of Art, John R. Lane. “And there are places in the DIA that are as­tound­ing — Amer­i­can paint­ing, the Na­tive Amer­i­can col­lec­tion, parts of its Euro­pean paint­ing col­lec­tion, dec­o­ra­tive arts and cer­tainly its African col­lec­tion.”

Pieces such as Henri Matisse’s “The Win­dow” help the DIA rank among top mu­se­ums in the coun­try. DIA

David Gu­ral­nick / The Detroit News “The Cot­tagers” by Joshua Reynolds is one of about 6,000 items from a much larger col­lec­tion now on dis­play.

“The Green Cir­cus Rider” by Marc Cha­gall was part of a large gift from the Josephine F. Ford es­tate in 2006.

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