‘A Love Letter to Detroit,’ on Vellum and Chrome

Of the myriad treasures that might draw a sightseeing car lover to Detroit, one potential attraction is notably missing: a major public museum collection dedicated to the automobile. America’s Motor City offers many compelling reasons for a visit, but it really has nothing like the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, the LeMay in Tacoma, Wash., or the well-known car displays in Reno, Indianapolis or Philadelphia.

A measure of relief from that drought has arrived in the form of “Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950-2020,” an exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts that opened this month and runs through next June. A dozen autos, including production models and conceptual show cars, will be displayed alongside drawings and photographs from the design studios where the vehicles took shape. Paintings and sculptures intended to illuminate the relationship of art and car culture over the past 70 years will also be on display.

Despite the location of its stately Beaux-Arts home on Woodward Avenue, a major artery of all things automotive in Detroit, the D.I.A. is not a vault of local industry. The last major exhibition of cars within the museum’s walls was a design retrospective in the 1980s that spanned the era from 1925 to 1950.

Admittedly, the museum’s high points do include the magnificent “Detroit Industry Murals” of Diego Rivera, frescoes that depict scenes inside the Ford River Rouge factory some 15 minutes west of the D.I.A. Still, the museum, established in 1885, is a world-class art institution in the broadest sense, with diverse holdings of international artworks. Typical of American art museums — the Museum of Modern Art in New York is an outlier in this respect — the D.I.A.’s permanent collection does not include cars.

The exhibition was originally to open as part of a larger celebration of the city’s bootstrap revival, timed to complement the shift of the 2020 North American International Auto Show from its bleak January calendar slot to the more agreeable weather of June. That plan was scuttled when the coronavirus pandemic took hold and the city’s main convention center was converted into a field hospital. The auto show has since been rescheduled for early fall 2021, which will make outdoor displays and activities feasible.

The cars in the “Detroit Style” show include both models once commonplace on suburban streets — a 1967 Ford Mustang and a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda among them — and design studies produced by Detroit automakers as trial balloons, created to focus-group proposed trends at public auto shows. The studies include icons like the 1951 Le Sabre from General Motors and the 1987 Lamborghini Portofino by Chrysler’s studio. The cars were chosen by an advisory committee that represented the College for Creative Studies design school, the Henry Ford museum and Detroit automakers.

Preparation for this show began five years ago, according to Benjamin W. Colman, the D.I.A.’s associate curator for American art. Part of that time was spent choosing the cars, researching the history and working out the logistics of arranging the loans. There was also the matter of where in the museum’s galleries the exhibition would go, partly affected by renovation work and partly restricted by access for the vehicles.

“These are the largest objects I’ve ever worked with,” Mr. Colman said.

The idea of portraying automobiles as both reflective of their eras and as trendsetters for industrial design is hardly new. To take that a step further, the D.I.A. exhibition set out to communicate the journey that started with a designer’s vision. “We wanted to tell the story that runs from image to object, the path it took,” Mr. Colman said.

The proximity of design sketches to actual cars in the museum gallery helps make that connection. For instance, the ’70 Barracuda is seen not only as a production model on display but also in a development sketch, rendered in Prismacolor on vellum in 1967 by Milton Antonick, a Chrysler designer. Mr. Colman describes this image of the car’s tail end as “a humble drawing, an informal working document” that serves to bridge the gap between a styling concept and the final product made of sheet metal.

Among the more pleasant tasks of assembling such an ambitious exhibition was locating the design drawings.

“So often the art was hiding in plain sight, within 20 miles of the museum,” Mr. Colman said. “I was knocking on doors in suburban Detroit, and the sketches were coming out of dusty boxes. We could do the show 10 times over and still have drawings left over.”

There is significance even in the choice of “Detroit Style” as the exhibition’s name. The discipline of creating a car’s look is today known as design, but in earlier times, before the complexities of manufacturing and marketing rewrote their job description, the creators of curvaceous fenders and chrome flourishes were called stylists. “It was a matter of looking to how the practitioners described themselves in the era,” Mr. Colman said. “We felt it important to keep the historical language.”

The support from hometown automakers proved valuable not only to organizing the show, but acquiring display cars as well. The ’67 Mustang belongs to Moray Callum, vice president for design at Ford Motor, whose generosity means he won’t be able to drive the car for the months it’s at the D.I.A. Mr. Callum is comfortable with the sacrifice, though.

“It’s important to show the full-scale objects, to bring the conceptual to life,” Mr. Callum said. “That’s our job every day, and these cars represent what I think has been a higher level of optimism in America. The world is changing, and we might be highlighting the end of an era, the moment just before the meteor wiped out the dinosaurs.”

Relevant works by prominent figures from the fine art world, including Charles Sheeler, Richard Prince, Ed Ruscha and Jean-Michel Basquiat, are seen in the show, too. Were there any carmakers not in the final selections for the exhibition that should have been represented?

“Packard, even at the end of its existence, was deserving, and certainly Studebaker could have earned a spot,” Mr. Callum said.

In the view of Mr. Colman, the curator, the goal of presenting cars that reflect the challenges of their times and their outsize influence on culture was paramount. In particular, he points to the 1959 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray racecar concept, a secretive project inside General Motors that established the design language of coming production models and gave rise to a durable mythology about designers and motorsports.

“I hope we tell a story that’s a love letter to Detroit,” Mr. Colman said. Still, the experience of creating this ode to the city’s legacy has not made great changes to his personal transportation: He commutes to work by bicycle.

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