Music legend Brian Eno is supposed to have said that only a thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but all of them went out and started a band.
You might say the Cranbrook Academy of Art is the Velvet Underground of art education.
Founded in 1932 by newspaper scions George and Ellen (nee Scipps) Booth, the academy was conceived as a counterpart to the European Bauhaus movement. In the past 70 years, some of the biggest influences on American art and design have passed through its doors, among them Florence Knoll, Charles Eames, Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen, son of Eliel Saarinen, Cranbrook’s principal architect. And there are a lot of names you probably don’t know – unless you’re a student at a prominent art school.
"It’s amazing how many (Cranbrook graduates) are running art schools or teaching people how to paint," says Reed Kroloff, the academy’s newly-appointed director.
And the academy is just the tip of Cranbrook’s aesthetically pleasing iceberg. The community encompasses an elite college prep school – with correspondingly elite tuition – a contemporary art museum designed by Eliel Saarinen, an Institute of Science packed with artifacts, relics and a T. rex skeleton cast, and the Cranbrook house and grounds, home of the Booths, complete with multiple reflecting pools and a rustic Greek theatre.
About 200,000 people visit the Institute of Science each year, says director Mike Stafford, and exhibits rotate every three months.
"We're an institute that is becoming increasingly all about relevant science," he says. "People think of natural science museums as the Smithsonian- or Victorian-style museum, but we feel the old paradigm of the natural history museum as a place where people come to look at beautiful things of long past."
The science institute, Stafford says, tries to engage critical issues like climate change in exhibits the staff hope serve as a jumping-off point for further exploration.
Though the institute gets a lot of visitors, Stafford says an important part of his staff’s mission is bringing science into the community with on-the-go vans that take exhibitions into the community, Web broadcasts and online classrooms.
"Where we're heading is relevance, regionalism and access, this whole museum without walls concept," he says.
Cranbrook’s pre-kindergarten-12 schools have about 1,600 students, says advancement director Rick Loewenstein, about 25 percent of whom get financial aid. Those students are divided into three schools, and take advantage of the educational community’s assets. Roughly 250 students live on campus, and about one-quarter of the faculty is residential.
The historic Cranbrook home and gardens, built by the Booths in the early twentieth century, are in pristine condition and meticulously maintained.
The community is two years and $145 million into a $150 million capital campaign, Loewenstein says, with three years left to go. The funds, he says, will go towards maintenance of the campus and to increase Cranbrook’s $300 million endowment.
But back to art
Kroloff’s been running the academy since September, but as the head of a successful and prestigious institution, his job doesn’t demand the emergency measures that, say, the head of the Detroit Public Schools reform board might’ve felt pressed to take. Rather, Kroloff’s job, for now, is to sit back, observe.
It’s not as simple as it sounds – an art school, Kroloff notes, should always be testing boundaries. At an art school with the history of Cranbrook, that testing has to go hand in hand with preserving the institution’s storied past.
It’s a fine line to walk.
"Any institution that has this kind of powerful history could easily lose itself in that history and never move forward again," he says. "Even in being sincere and engaged that could happen, just managing the history here is a full-time job. You can see how that activity can consume all of us, but at the same time we have 10 artists in residence whose job it is to push back the boundaries of each of their disciplines. So those two things are going on at all times - preservation and sustenance of tradition."
An architect whose last position was dean of the prestigious Tulane University School of Architecture, Kroloff says it’s impossible to underestimate the impact of Cranbrook’s Eliel Saarinen-designed campus.
Some schools, he says, have a couple of great buildings – and a lot of piles of brick, unaesthetic and uninspiring.
"We don't have that," he says. "We just have the good ones. And so many are signature buildings, and having had one architect doing all of the works… other than the campuses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for his own students, you don't get that."
The key to Cranbrook’s remarkability, Kroloff says, is its idiosyncratic teaching method. Students don’t flit from prof to prof – each studies under one of the 10 artists-in-residence for an entire course of study.
"You do your own work, and you study with an artist-in-residence whose job is to be an artist, not a college professor," he says. "They have three jobs - they work with their students. They make art and design, and they get famous and stay that way, because they're the best."
Kroloff’s other goal is to continue the combination of art and design, which have been driven apart by specialization since the middle of the last century, he says.
"Forcing students to forget about any kind of preconception - if anything I want to intensify it," he says. "If I could have a legacy here it would be to have broken down the barriers that exist and apply to projects that employed art to create better public spaces … by creating transdisciplinary activities that create our world better. That would be best legacy that I could have."
Next up for Kroloff is the Eero Saarinen retrospective that opened Nov. 16 (look for metromode's video spotlighting the exhibit in next week's issue) – the first exhibit of its kind for the man who designed such cultural icons as the tulip chair or the St. Louis Gateway Arch.
Exhibits and symposiums like the one that will accompany the Saarinen retrospective are crucial to Cranbrook’s work, Kroloff says.
"The people in the metropolitan region and southeast Michigan really do like the Cranbrook museum and academy, but I think a lot of people don't know what goes on in academy," he says. "It's an art and design school and fairly insular …it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that our neighbors … have available to them a world renowned museum of design and art, particularly modern design and modern art, and that we want to do programming that is interesting to them, that is challenging to them, that like for us, rolls back their perimeters a little bit. We want to be surprised and delighted and appalled and enraged, have our minds opened and opinions changed."
Nancy Kaffer is a freelance writer living in Clawsonand metromode's Innovation & Job News editor. She writes about culture, business, development and other interesting stuff. Her last article for 'mode was Downtowns Become Boomertowns.
Cranbrook Art Museum - Bloomfield Hills
George & Ellen S. Booth - photo courtesy Cranbrook Art Academy
Cranbrook Institute of Science director, Mike Stafford - photo courtesy Cranbrook Art Academy
Cranbrook Art Academy's new director, Reed Kroloff
Class Critique - photo courtesy Cranbrook Art Academy
Doors to Cranbrook Art museum
Photographs by Marvin Shaouni