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DIA exhibition showcases gifts from some close ‘Friends’

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published January 6, 2016

 Robert Traniello originally shot this photograph, “1939 Packard V-12 Coupe,” in 1985, but this print was created in 1996 and is part of the DIA’s collection. It can now be seen as part of “Fifty Years of Collecting: Detroit Institute of Arts’ Friends of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Anniversary Exhibition.”

Robert Traniello originally shot this photograph, “1939 Packard V-12 Coupe,” in 1985, but this print was created in 1996 and is part of the DIA’s collection. It can now be seen as part of “Fifty Years of Collecting: Detroit Institute of Arts’ Friends of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Anniversary Exhibition.”

Photo provided by the Detroit Institute of Arts

DETROIT — It’s had different names over the last 50 years, but the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Friends of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs has never strayed from its mission of building a strong collection of works on paper for the museum.

The keen eye of those members and their leaders are showcased in “Fifty Years of Collecting: Detroit Institute of Arts’ Friends of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Anniversary Exhibition,” on display through June 18. The show draws from the hundreds of works purchased, commissioned or given to the DIA through the Friends, which was founded in 1965-66 as the Print and Drawing Club — before the museum started collecting photographs. Works include Berenice Abbott’s “New York at Night,” Erich Heckel’s “Die Brucke” poster, James McNeill Whistler’s “Yellow House, Lannion,” Edvard Munch’s “Lovers” and Robert Frank’s “Belle Isle Detroit.”

Nancy Sojka, curator of prints and drawings and head of the DIA’s Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Department, said all of the works on view were either gifts to the museum or purchased using funds collected by the Friends. Some of the works were acquired in memory of someone, and the collection includes works by notable Detroit artists who are also Friends members, she said.

“The exhibition is an absolute testimonial to what people who love works on paper have done for the institution,” Sojka said.

The Friends not only bring new works into the DIA’s collection, but they also go on art-related trips, sponsor lectures and programs, and host openings, among other functions, Sojka said. 

The Friends operated as the Graphic Arts Council in 1988 and became the Forum for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs in 2007, Sojka said. It was only last fall that they were renamed the Friends.

“This exhibition would not have been possible without the support of Friends of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs,” said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons in a prepared statement. “The generosity of its dedicated members has enabled us to add important works to the collection for our visitors to enjoy. This exhibition is a celebration of art and philanthropy.”

Sojka said “there’s a story behind everything” that the Friends have acquired over the last 50 years. She said one of the works in this show was donated by late Wayne State University art professor Stanley Rosenthal, who gifted a work in memory of former DIA curator Ellen Sharp, founder of the group. Sojka recalled how, on a trip to the New Haven, Connecticut, studio of artist William Bailey, the Friends were so delighted by the artist and his work that they commissioned a piece by him; he, in turn, created a work he called “Detroit Still Life” for that commission in 2003. On a 2006 Friends trip to San Francisco, she said, they visited the Stanford University studio of Enrique Chagoya, and Sojka was so struck by the 2000 work “Pastime in Ancient Egypt,” which she found sitting on the floor, that the group acquired the work for the museum.

“As much as this is an art exhibition, this is a people exhibition,” said Sojka, noting the personal anecdotes behind the works.

The exhibition is something of a swan song for Sojka, who is retiring in January after a 27-year career with the DIA. She said the show is “a nice capstone” to her years with the museum, and she’s become friends with many of the Friends. 

“Over the years, Nancy has organized dozens of exhibitions drawn from the museum’s rich collection of prints and drawings,” Salort-Pons said.

Sojka said she doesn’t have a favorite among the just under 120 works in this show, and she said “the hard part” was picking works for the retrospective from the vast Friends collection.

“Everything has its own story,” she said. “Everything is interesting in its own right.”

Visitors will find that many of the pieces are surprising because they were atypical for the artist or they were created using unexpected materials, from prints created using found objects to a print made using caviar and Pepto-Bismol. Important artists and important works from various art movements are represented.

“I am overwhelmed by the quality and the significance of everything in this exhibition,” Sojka said. “That speaks to the level of devotion of the members.”

The Friends membership currently stands at around 220, and any member of the DIA can join for a membership fee.

“At the same time the show celebrates the past, it’s very much of the moment,” said Sojka, pointing to the presence of a number of modern pieces.

The Friends’ anniversary will continue in 2016.

Admission to “Fifty Years of Collecting: Detroit Institute of Arts’ Friends of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Anniversary Exhibition” is included with regular museum admission and is free to residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. The DIA is located at 5200 Woodward Ave. in Detroit. For more information, visit www.dia.org or call (313) 833-7900.