It was a radical concept for its time in the early 1930s: create a graduate art school program without grades, classes, degrees or even teachers.
When the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills was created nearly 90 years ago, it shunned the idea of learning from traditional professors. Instead, artists would teach other artists.
Today, the academy, founded in 1932, still operates with that same sense of hands-on instruction (though degrees are now awarded). Now, a new exhibition at the Cranbrook Art Museum pays homage to the artists and works that that unusual approach helped create.
“With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art since 1932” at the Cranbrook Art Museum opens to the general public Sunday and runs through Sept. 19, featuring more than 275 pieces from 225 Cranbrook Academy of Art artists, faculty and alumni.
It represents all of the academy’s programs of study, including architecture, ceramics, design, fiber, metals, photography and more. It’s the largest exhibition about the art academy in 40 years.
“This brings all of these contemporary artists to the forefront,” said Julie Fracker, the art academy’s director of communications.
The exhibition takes its name from a comment Cranbrook founder George Booth, a metalsmith before he got into publishing, made decades ago about creating a facility that was an “eye-opener.” Eliel Saarinen, the art academy’s first president, wanted to really interpret what that meant in terms of art.
“With Eyes Opened” is organized into 11 themes, each with its own gallery, mixing mediums so paintings hang near sculptures and ceramics are near textiles. As an institution known for its influence on design and furniture, an entire wall in one gallery of the exhibition follows the evolution of the chair, including an Eames lounge chair and molded plywood chair.
“We wanted to look at the history of the chair at Cranbrook,” said Andrew Blauvelt, the art museum’s director, pointing to a wall filled with dozens of design-forward chairs, including the iconic Eames lounge chair. “It’s a lot of what the school is known for.”
But the exhibition — which includes work by some of the biggest names in design, including Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll and Harry Bertoia — goes even further. It also pays tribute to artists the public may not realize have Cranbrook ties, including female artists and artists of color.
An opening portion of the exhibition with a bold red wall features a floral carpet and ceramic table created by Gere Kavanaugh, a Cranbrook grad who worked as a stylist for General Motors and was part of a group of designers at the automaker dubbed the “Damsels of Design.”
“She did that after graduating from Cranbrook,” said Blauvelt. “These are not the things that people think about when they think about Cranbrook. They think of rational modernist furniture. This is much more whimsical.”
The exhibition comes just months after the art academy got a major boost for its diversity and inclusion efforts thanks to a $30 million gift from Dan and Jennifer Gilbert.
Blauvelt said they worked for more than four years to put the exhibition together, which was affected in part by the pandemic. Some art comes from the museum’s collection.
One of the oldest pieces in the exhibition is a massive tapestry from the early 1930s called the “Cranbrook Map.” Designed by Saarinen and woven by his wife, Loja, and her weavers, “it’s an aerial view, geometric and abstract, of this area and what was coming back in the late 1920s.”
The Booths were inspired to create Cranbrook after a visit to the American Academy of Rome. Professors such as Maija Grotell, the former head of its ceramics department from 1938 to 1966, encouraged students to find “their own voice,” said Blauvelt.
“They wanted students to experiment more, try new materials and to try and fail,” said Blauvelt, himself a Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate. “These are all concepts that are really contemporary. But when you think about 1932, it would have been kind of crazy.”
‘With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art since 1932’
June 20-Sept. 19 at the Cranbrook Art Museum
39221 Woodward Ave. in Bloomfield Hills.