Since its founding in 1965-66 as the Print and Drawing Club, what is now known as the Friends of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs has acquired hundreds of works on paper for the Detroit Institute of Arts. It's one of the DIA's many auxiliary support groups — essentially a group of DIA members who are appreciators of a particular type of art. The museum pays respects to the group with Fifty Years of Collecting: Detroit Institute of Arts' Friends of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Anniversary Exhibition, which features work from expressionist Edvard Munch to photographer Robert Frank. It's the final exhibition organized by Nancy Sojka, the curator of prints and drawings and department head of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs (who is retiring in January after 27 years with the museum.) We spoke with Sojka by phone to learn more.
Metro Times: Can you tell us about the origins of this group?
Nancy Sojka: It started out as a drawing and print club. Their mission largely has been to support the work of the department by helping to add to the DIA’s collection. The collecting has occurred primarily via four major ways. By 1968, the group always had a purchase fund, so works of art have been acquired by purchase. But the majority have been gifts. Then in 1996 there was the creation of something called Summer Soirees. This summer will be the 20th year — which is wonderfully coincidental too. Every other year there are a series of many parties at homes, studios, and interesting venues in Detroit. All the proceeds from those parties go to the collection. Also, in past years there have been 20 times when artists have been commissioned to make an edition of prints for sale to the membership. So every one of those is a commission too. So the show has almost 120 objects. It is pretty impressive — and it’s all works of art acquired because of the initiative of this friends group.
MT: Do all the departments their own support group?
Sojka: At the different times the departments have been established, they established these auxiliary support groups. There are some who have already celebrated their 50th birthday, and some that will. And they all do various things. By and large, they do a lot of programming. They do a lot of lectures, and a lot of support of DIA exhibitions.
MT: Can you talk about some of the work in this new show?
Sojka: I think what kind of has revealed itself is the group has been more devoted to art of the 20th century and the 21st century than it has to older art. One of the first things that the group bought was a German expressionist poster of a 1908 Die Brücke exhibition. Just this year, the group used the purchase fund to buy rare color lithograph by James McNeill Whistler, which was something we didn’t have in the collection. The gamut is huge.
MT: Why does the collection skew to those centuries?
Sojka: I think a lot of it has to do with the time the club was established in 1965-66. A lot of people were doing what they do now, which is collecting artists of their time. But Detroit has always been very interested in contemporary art, and I think that comes forward. There are approximately 220 members now. Thirteen or 14 of them are active artists, and all of them are represented in the show. But at the same time, there’s an international scope.
MT: Who are the members?
Sojka: Anyone can be a member of the group as long as you’re a DIA member. All it does is give people who really love a particular kind of art — whether it’s European art, or American art, or Asian art — a specialty area within the museum where if you wanted to you could get more deeply involved in that particular art that you like best.
MT: What’s the process like when art is given to the museum as a gift?
Sojka: In any situation, it’s identifying an object out there — whether from an artist or a gallery or a purchase made from funds from the group — it’s the same as any purchase made from the museum. It doesn’t matter where it’s from or who’s offering it — there’s a formal review process with every acquisition. Even if the director wanted to make an acquisition, he would have to go through the formal steps. There’s a series of committees that it has to be approved by. The only reason we acquire things is if they add value to the collection, and be able to teach about some aspect of art that you want to present. We have things in the collection because we want to show them. And that still remains the M.O. of the collection, because it will make the museum stronger and better.
MT: Anything else you think people should know about the show?
Sojka: What I really like about the show is that it’s a beautiful testament to what people have been doing for 50 years. So you come to the show, and it’s physical. It’s real. It’s quite beautiful. I think it’s a nice and impressive testimonial to the group. It’s nice. It’s like, “Wow, we did this? Job well done!” And what a beautiful time in the history of the museum, in our kind of Renaissance time. What a good time to be 50, as part of the 130 anniversary of the museum. It’s a beautiful position for an institution with a wonderful, hopeful future.
Fifty Years of Collecting: Detroit Institute of Arts’ Friends of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Anniversary Exhibition is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts; 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900; dia.org; free with museum admission and free for residents of Wayne Oakland and Macomb counties; runs until June 18, 2016.