Local History Hits the Road at MSU Broad

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Photo courtesy of Morgan Butts, MSU Broad Museum.

Lunch Break, from the series Birdcage, 1994 by Tyree Guyton.

The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU, also known as MSU Broad Museum, reopened its doors on Sept. 1, six months after closing in March due to the pandemic. And now, they’re gearing up for their new exhibit, “InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile,” opening Nov. 7. This marks the first lead exhibition presented under Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, the new director at the MSU Broad.

The exhibit delves into the U.S. fascination with the automobile contrasting how the invention has both connected and torn apart our communities by creating inequities. Showcasing artwork from the MSU Broad collection, as well as pieces on loan from the Flint Institute of Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and the Detroit Institute of Art, the exhibit features sketches and archival materials from the 1900s to the present. 

“This exhibition critically reveals both the celebratory culture shaped by the advent of the automobile in America, and on the other hand, the intensification of existing racial, gender, and economic inequity resulting from that same car culture,” explained museum director Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, in a press release.

“The artists explore this paradoxical nature of the automobile that albeit simultaneously connecting and dividing our communities, continues to embody notions of freedom, possibility and other ideas that shape our notion of ‘America,’” the press release continued.

Associate Curator Steven L. Bridges spoke to ELi about the showcase, which is curated with Assistant Curator Georgia Erger. After noticing the common theme of cars amidst artwork in this geographic region, the pair began to shape a critical approach to showcase local and regional histories of the automobile. 

“As we delved deeper into the subject matter,” Bridges said, “we quickly realized that the automobile functioned as a kind of prism through which we could explore culture and society more broadly, since the rise of the automobile and the development of its many infrastructures – like the Interstate Highway System – were shaped by larger social, cultural, political, and economic forces. In looking at the car through the lens of a wide range of artists over the past 100 or so years, there is much to be celebrated and to be critically examined.”

Some of the featured artists worked in the auto manufacturing industry for decades and were members of the United Auto Workers union. Their work incorporates personal stories, and audio voice recordings tell their firsthand experiences. Bridges said this makes the exhibit especially relevant to the greater Lansing area and the state in general. 

“Many people have a strong connection to the automobile, whether from personal experience or from family members, neighbors, and other community members,” he said. 

Lansing-native Michael Burton is one of the drawing artists whose work is featured in a small exhibition running nearly concurrently with the InterStates of Mind exhibition. 

“Burton was a very important and influential automotive designer and the first Black designer to work for the top three automobile manufacturers in the US: Ford, Chrysler, and GM,” Bridges said. 

“By showcasing the work of Burton, we continue our efforts as a museum to ground our exhibitions and activities in the local community. My sense is that many people may not be aware of Burton and his groundbreaking work in the automobile industry – many of us may even drive cars that were at least in part designed by Burton – and it’s important to bring this figure and local history to light.”

This is the first time these works have been exhibited publicly, thanks to Burton’s brother, Adolph Burton, and the Burton family, who loaned his work to the museum. 

Other contributors include MSU faculty and student researchers. Said Bridges, “We feature research produced by the Julian Samora Research Institute at MSU, which explores the role of the Latinx community in contributing to, and shaping the automobile industry, as well as the work of Professor Lisa Fine, who wrote an important book on labor and gender in relation to the local history of Ransom E. Olds and the different iterations of his automobile companies, which he founded in Lansing around the turn of the 20th century.” 

Local residents also contributed materials from their own collections, highlighting the strong local ties to the automobile, and its manifestations in art and culture.

For Bridges, this family-friendly exhibit opens at an opportune time in our nation’s ever-evolving history.

“In this time of great instability and divisiveness, the exhibition provides us with a look into our shared history as Americans, the incredible things we can achieve when we work together, and an understanding of some of the root causes that continue to fragment society,” he said.

Entrance to the museum is free, as is the exhibit, which runs from Nov. 7, 2020, to April 21, 2021. Tickets can be reserved online, part of the museum’s newly implemented timed-entry ticketing system that enforces capacity limits. Tickets can be reserved up to one month in advance here.

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