103 Th ttmn- tiarsa Otoe ,21
Wednesday, October 6, 2010 // The Statement SB
How Joseph Rosa plans to usher UMMA into the 21st century
By Leah Burgin
Imagine the second floor of the Univer-
sity of Michigan Museum of Art. No matter
which doors you enter through - the Alumni
Memorial Hall doors, accessed through a clas-
sical colonnade, or the modern entries of the
Maxine and Stuart Frankel and the Frankel
Family Wing - and no matter which path you
followthrough the museum, atsome point you
find yourself on a threshold. You look through
the glass out toward State Street
and realize you're on a bridge
between the old and the new.
This transition is not sub-
tie. Structurally, there's a
marked change in materi-
als as the marble flooring
turns to wood. The collec-
tions change as well - from
exhibits featuring Europe-
an and American art to those
with Asian and African works.
It can be described as a change in
atmosphere. The old wing emotes
rigidity and respect; the new oozes light
A man named Joseph Rosa stands on a simi-
lar threshold. As the new director of UMMA,
Rosa is charged with a unique responsibil-
ity: bridging the gap between the museum's
150-year-old collection and its brand new
expansion, intended to usher UMMA into the
21st century. And with over 18,000 pieces in
UMMA's collection and 53,000 square feet in
the new Frankel Wing, there are a lot of pos-
sible forms this bridge could take. But Rosa is
up for the challenge.
Rosa, soft spoken but energetic,
describes his entry into the museum world
as serendipitous. After receiving architec-
ture degrees from both the Pratt Institute in
Brooklyn and Columbia University, he worked
for various architectural firms. Through that
work, Rosa became interested in the work of
Albert Frey, about whom he ultimately wrote
a book and put together and curated a show.
Rosa says he didn't plan to get into a career
with museums, but since that first show, he
has been hooked. His body of work speaks for
itself. Rosa has curated more than 30 exhib-
its at the four museums he's worked at: the
National Building Museum in Washington,
D.C., the Heinz Architectural Center at the
Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburg, the San
Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Art
Institute of Chicago.
Ruth Berson, the deputy director of exhi-
bitions and collections at the San Francisco
Museum of Modern Art said Rosa was an
"absolutely fabulous curator" when she
worked with him during his time as the muse-
um's Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architec-
ture and Design.
She remembered, in particular, a series
of exhibitions Rosa put together called "The
Design Series" that looked at "cutting-edge
work in architecture and design."
"(The series) provided a forum for the ...
emerging people in the field," Berson said. "He
has an eye for what is coming up and is new."
Chrysanthe Broikos, a curator at the
National Building Museum, echoes Berson's
sentiments on how Rosa nurtured and led his
department in Washington.
"He brought a lot of great shows to the
museum and really tried to raise the profile
of the (National Building Museum)," Broikos
said. "He would actually design a lot of the
smaller shows we were doing ... and that
helped in terms of the overall look and feel of
But no museum tested Rosa more than the
Art Institute of Chicago. In his position as the
museum's John H. Bryan Chair and Curator
of Architecture and Design, Rosa was chal-
lenged with retooling his department as well
as with overseeing a 300,000-square-foot
Rosa was brought to Chicago to be, as he
says, an "alchemist," exponentially expanding
the museum's previously small collection in a
short time span.
Zoe Ryan, the Art Institute's Neville Bryan
Curator of Design and interim John H. Bryan
Chair and Curator ofArchitecture and Design,
was actively involved with Rosa's departmen-
Currently, Ryan and Rosa are co-curating
an exhibit set to open at the Art Institute Dec.
11. It's Rosa's final exhibit at the Art Institute
and is the result of Rosa's and Ryan's close col-
laboration for the past four years. The show,
"Hyperlinks: Architecture and Design,"
focuses on the idea that architects and design-
ers can work with a base idea that has mul-
tiple iterations. The exhibit demonstrates that
the germination of an idea can be universally
"Someone doesn't just make a chair," Rosa
explained, gesticulating wilding. "It's a chair
with other possibilities."
"The hyperlinks show is thinking very
broadly of what architecture and design
mean," Ryan added. "We want to have unique
and original works in the museum."
According to Ryan, this somewhat-radical
exhibit reflects Rosa's management style and
what he can bring to UMMA - taking further
the department, which brags the largest gal-
leries devoted to art and design in the country.
"We are very forward-thinking," she said.
"(Rosa is) not afraid of avant-garde methods
After James Steward - UMMA's
sixth director who held the post for 11 years
and oversaw the expansion project - left the
"We need to start acting like a
regional art museum because
we're as big as one."
questioning what a museum can be," he said.
"A university by nature challenges students to
be the best and gives them the edge on what-
ever medium it is that they're studying."
"(I thought) 'What could I do if I was there?
How could I make it even more than it is? Can
I contribute? Can I do what they need?' "he
added. "Those are the parts I loved the most
(about UMMA): feeling comfortable and just
being energized by what the possibilities are."
In coming to UMMA, Rosa brought with
him big ideas for the museum. Integral to the
implementation of his goals is utilizing the
new Frankel wing. Opened in March of 2009,
this wing represented a $41.9 million, 3-year
expansion and refurbishing project.
For Silverman and Slavin, the expansion
was nothing but positive.
"I think the University of Michigan now
has the art museum it deserves," Slavin said.
"We're very poised to fulfill the educational
and University mission because of the addi-
tion. Everything from classes taking place on
a daily basis to lectures and symposiums. We
can showcase performing arts on a faculty
and student level. So to me, the building is the
physical opportunity to manifest the mission."
Rosa is very interested in the "town/gown"
debate, and many of the initiatives he plans
to pursue speak to both of UMMA's main
constituent groups - the University and the
surrounding community - and aim toward
bridging the gap between these two circles.
Rosa said he is looking toward creating
"three tiers" of improving the museum. The
first: collaboration with other units, like the
School of Social Work and the Ross School
of Business, that might not have a museum to
house their collections. Secondly, Rosa plans
to hire a curatorial administrator "to manage
guest curators and traveling shows" in order
to give the museum's current three curators
more time to produce their own shows. And
last, Rosa wants to fill any gaps within the col-
lection by bringing in guest curators or travel-
Rosa said that he also wants to "start using
the museum in new ways" and is considering
how UMMA can reach out to the student pop-
ulation and the Ann Arbor community.
"I want the building to become a nexus for
students and people in Michigan," he said.
"We're going to explore the possibility of hav-
ing the building open twice a year ... from 6
p.m. to 12 a.m. with music and food because
it should be a place where people come to mix.
Another thing is possibly doing projections in
the courtyard ... from night to morning. (By)
showing videos at night, even while the build-
ing is closed, the building is active."
Accordingto Rosa, just as important as col-
laboration between UMMA and other Uni-
versity departments is a relationship between
UMMA and the greater academic community
from outside of the University. He is also inter-
ested in establishing a solid future plan for the
"My interest now is to be macro and then
micro. We need to start acting like a regional
art museum because we're as big as one," he
said. "We need to start thinking about holding
events here ... Many people are interested in a
black tie gala, a lecture series, an acquisition
He added that UMMA will use the services
of a consultant to help the museum with its
"One ear, three years, five years, and then
you revise before the fifth year for another five
years. It allows everyone's voice tobe heard ...
It's collective," he said. "In five years, where.
do we want to be? ... It's the moment to ques-
tion. It'll be fun."
Rosa also has more pedestrian goals for
UMMA in the coming years, including ana-
lyzing branding, membership and how to
bring more visitors to the museum.
"We want to bring in more people for the
experience," Rosa explained. "It's not just foot
traffic, it's web traffic, when you curate a show
and it travels, that's your traffic.... I'd love to
see our shop go online. We could have more
merchandise. Things like that."
So far, Rosa has found his time at UMMA
"productive," saying that "everything is going
"The previous director did an amazing job
building this building," he said. "And the
previous directors did an amazing job
building a collection. (UMMA is) one
of the oldest and largest of the uni-
versity museums, with a col-
lection that's quite good.
That's a great platform
to build and play
tivate things that are
going to the big places."
For now, it seems that UMMA needs to
successfully straddle the bridge between its
past and its present, ushering in a new age of
community interaction, while simultaneously
creating a bridge for all of its constituents. But
for Rosa, a director who understands bridges
from a structural and theoretical standpoint,
these goals are not out of reach.
"Everyone goes to the gym," he said.
"Everyone should belong to museums."
University in 2009 to accept the directorship
of the Princeton University Art Museum,
the University formed a 14-person advisory
search committee to find his replacement.
"In general, we had a large pool of appli-
cants," said committee member Raymond
Silverman, director of the museum studies
program. "Some people applied from aca-
demic museums ... others applying from civic
museums. Most of the applicants were people
who had held high level curatorial positions,
such as Joe Rosa."
Rosa understood UMMA's desire for a map-
"They were interested in someone who
could help lead, direct, be collaborative and be
the face for the institution," he said. "I've done
that and I love doing that. It's a complicated
little business if you don't know the ropes."
Besides being impressed with "how nice
everyone was" during the laborious interview
process and the University's dedication to the
arts, Rosa was attracted to UMMA because,
as he said, "there's nothing broken" within the
"I was amazed," he said. "In the contempo-
rary state of art culture and museums as insti-
tutes, there's a lot broken. I thought, 'There
are no potholes anywhere!' and there usually
is. And I was impressed to see this uncondi-
tional commitment to art from the provost
and the president, which I think is, quite hon-
estly, a rarity."
He was also impressed by the excitement
and enthusiasm of the University's alumni
"When I said I was coming here, all the sud-
den allthese people (I know) are from the Uni-
versity of Michigan," Rosa said. "(They have)
unconditional love for the University, which
is brilliant, because this place gave people
a start to a life that they treasure, and that's
what education should be about. That's what
art should be about."
Rosa also felt at home at the University.
As a member of both worlds UMMA encom-
passes - academia and museums - Rosa said
UMMA "felt natural." He was also excited by
the opportunities that UMMA presents as a
"University art museums are really the
most accessible place to do things that are