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Spartan Conversations: Michael Rush

Portrait photo of Michael Rush

Michael Rush is the founding director of the Broad Art Museum located on the campus of Michigan State University. A beacon for contemporary art, the museum recently celebrated its two year anniversary. In this conversation, Dr. Rush discusses the original goals for the museum and his vision for global outreach.

MK: Dr. Rush, first let me congratulate you on the two year anniversary of the Broad Art Museum this week. I understand that you have exceeded many expectations since opening. What were some of the goals you set for the museum early on and what still challenges you today?

MR: Something I recognized early was that Michigan State has an extraordinary global outreach and I was extremely excited about tapping into this. I knew that we had the potential to be a first rate contemporary art museum given our architect, Zaha Hadid’s, reputation and our benefactor, Eli Broad, as one of the biggest art collectors in the country. The fresh idea for me was that the museum could be the cultural arm of the global outreach of MSU. With the opening of our Chinese contemporary art exhibition just last week and with more than 40 artists presented from around the world, we are really fulfilling that mission and we are bringing the finest of international contemporary art right here to East Lansing. This is an extraordinary privilege and one that people seem to be responding to.

MK: So attendance has surpassed all goals?

Yes, our visitor-ship has really exceeded our expectations. We have had visitors from 78 countries and every week, rain or shine, we average 1,500 people. I speak often to my peers around the country and this is really an extraordinary visitor level for a relatively small town and outside a large city center. The amazing thing is that it wasn’t just the first couple of months when people were interested in seeing something new but every week for two years now we’ve had consistent numbers. And I hear that people in the community have great pride in the museum. Even though the building might be controversial to some with its very strong contemporary nature, people are proud of this type of iconic and important center for arts right here in downtown. I am particularly pleased that the decision makers decided early on to put the building right on Grand River Drive with easy access and high visibility. I really think we are having a very strong impact on the culture and vitality of East Lansing.

MK: You’ve worked and lived in much larger cities such as Boston, Miami and New York. What has surprised you since coming to mid-Michigan?

MR: One of the biggest pleasures for me and for our curators here too is bringing new ways of thinking and new types of experiences to areas that don’t have them as plentifully as some of the larger cities do. To be the catalyst for people to experience the finest in contemporary art from around the world right here in East Lansing is such a privilege because in the larger cities people take everything for granted – to them it might not be a big deal if you have an artist from Pakistan showing in your museum. But for us it’s not the daily fare to have international artists here. It gives me great joy when people come to life and say “wow this has changed my thinking” and “this has opened up my thoughts about that country” or “to see this kind of art right here so we don’t have to travel.” I wouldn’t say I have been surprised necessary. I mean people, particularly in a university town, are open minded and smart and I think we arrived at just the right time when people were ready for this. There isn’t really any competition with larger cities but it’s really having the convenience of first rate art at your doorstep that makes an enormous difference to people.

MK: What role do you believe the museum plays in economic development, building vibrant communities, attracting talent and so on?

MR: The arts are well known to support local economies, particularly highly visible arts organizations. As I mentioned, we are bringing in 1,500 visitors per a week and many of these people are eating at local restaurants, staying in hotels and shopping. I think you’re going to see more quality restaurants opening up in our area because people really want to have a fine meal as part of the total art and culture experience. What’s interesting is that only 62% of our visitors are from the Greater Lansing area meaning 38% of our visitors are traveling to get here and they are coming from all parts of the country including all 50 states — this museum is a destination. As more visitors come they are going to spend and it’s only going to grow and you are going to find different kinds of shops, restaurants and even different kinds of housing opportunities for people. Even art students from MSU are realizing that they have a great resource in the museum and may not feel the need to move to advance their art career and they can find housing here. Our economic impact will continue to be strong and given our international focus and outreach, people from other countries will continue to come. When people visit it opens potential for them spend here, move here, teach here, learn here.

MK: What’s next for the museum?

MR: We are looking into more partnerships, especially with the Wharton Center. People will be able to plan a weekend on our campus to see a show, visit the museum or attend a concert at the School of Music. Combining these efforts makes MSU a hub for cultural activity and again, a destination. It took enormous effort to get the museum up and running on its own and the next phase is to reach out to our collaborations in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids. Our hopes are to establish an arts corridor from Detroit/Ann Arbor/Lansing over to Grand Rapids then create and coordinate activities. The future is going to hold more collaboration with other arts organizations and that too will help spur economic results in our region.

MK: Obviously the three universities in the University Research Corridor are well known for their research and in particular for science, engineering, medicine and so on. How do feel the Broad Art Museum fits into the research focus?

We happen to be opening a really extraordinary exhibition called Collegeville 2030. We’ve put together eight first rate new architects and architectural firms from around the country to dream what East Lansing could be in the future architecturally. It’s really an extraordinary exhibition that we want everybody to see. We have had several discussion panels leading up to this exhibition with these architects and there will be more after the opening. You will see plans for a total reimagining of what our area could look like. I’m not suggesting that this has to happen or that the area is lacking, but at the museum I want us to function as a think tank and also as a place that people can dream. That’s what art does — it allows people to dream in different ways. And here we have architects dreaming about an alternative future to East Lansing. If you could, imagine if East Lansing also became an architectural center that would attract visitors. We are a long way from that but we are planting the seed of what could be, which I think in positions like ours it’s available to do.

The exhibit will last several months and we are really, really excited about it. This is part of our contribution to the research mission of the university. We very much see ourselves as a research center for creative thinking and you will see more of this going forward.

— Melanie Kauffman, VP Research & Graduate Studies

— Photo of Dr. Rush provided by the Broad Art Museum

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