From her first step to her last stride through the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Jennifer Metsker looks wide-eyed, curious and defiant. Appreciating the power of art, according to Metsker, is a delicate balancing act between tradition and the not-so-easy to define, convention, and the challenging nature of contemporary art.
Yet ultimately, a walk through UMMA is a journey of self-discovery.
For Metsker, who studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and earned an MFA in poetry from U-M, the new UMMA presents moment after moment of what she calls spiritual awakenings; the kind of epiphany she derives from distilling a poetic phrase, and being open to the unforeseen.
“I visit UMMA because I want to be surprised,” said Metsker. “Every day I wake up and I know what I’m going to see in my world, but when I come here, I know I’ll be surprised—challenged by something unexpected. I love the blend of the old and the new.”
A walk through UMMA alongside Metsker, who teaches writing at the Sweetland Writing Center in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, reveals how the art museum evokes profoundly personal memories and fosters an intimate intellectual excursion into the meaning of art and the resonance of an inspiring aesthetic experience.
She is among the thousands who have visited the museum since its reopening in March. The $41.9 million transformed museum more than triples the number of works from the collections on view, offers multiple classroom and event spaces, and creates an expansive venue for special exhibitions. Architect Brad Cloepfil’s design creates an open flow from gallery to gallery, transmitting a sense of movement and intimacy, and fostering a place conducive to both discourse and solitude.
The renovated Alumni Memorial Hall and a 53,000-square-foot expansion elevate UMMA to stand among the largest and most innovative university museums in the country. The new space, called the Maxine and Stuart Frankel and the Frankel Family Wing, is named for the project’s lead benefactors. The Frankels of Bloomfield Hills are U-M alumni.
Despite the current financial struggles throughout the museum world and beyond, the last March reopening offers a much-needed sign of hope, and serves as a testament to the wonders of patronage and rewards of persistence. Since March, the new UMMA has brought together a diverse range of artists working in the visual arts, film, literature, architecture, and music. The result is a deeper sense of community.
It’s the deep connection among the community of UMMA artworks that inspires Metsker, who wrote an essay after strolling through the newly expanded museum. The essay, “When One Door Is Not Enough: A Museum’s Many Entry Points,” is a meditation on the nature of art and the connection between the “aesthetic experience” inside a museum and enhancing everyday observations about life. She writes:
“The pieces that most deeply affected me weren’t those that moved me the most intellectually, but standing in front of them I found myself falling out of time and out of thought and into the grace of miscomprehension where my ego dissolved just enough to allow for an unexpected encounter.”
Metsker has her favorite art pieces—Joan Mitchell’s “White Territory” and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “By the Light of the Untitled,” to name a few. Both pieces inspire Metsker to explore the basic questions: What is art? And why are people driven to create art? Her responses reflect a personal language of exploration and self discovery, and present a bridge upon which to link art and her life. She concludes:
“Once I had this language [of interpreting and appreciating art, my] despondency abated because I could finally live fully; life stirred me up, and I could stir productively back. I threw myself into painting and art criticism and set my goals high: I would know all there was to know about this mysterious language that had the ability to change my life. I would be an art lover.”