Did you know that Cranbrook Art Museum’s educational partnerships with surrounding communities date back over sixty years? Long before the current museum trend of interactive educational programs for youth audiences, the Academy of Art and the Junior League of Birmingham had an idea: the Young People’s Art Center (YPAC).
The year was 1958, and the Museum had recently changed names to the Academy of Art Galleries, shifting focus to feature more contemporary art practices. With that, came the desire to encourage young visitors to express their own artistic voices—participatory education, rather than simply art appreciation. Documenting the program’s first year, a June 1959 Detroit News Pictorial Magazine feature noted that YPAC “is fast gaining a national reputation for its lively approach to art education.”
In particular, it was Henry Booth (Academy Board of Trustees Chairman), Wallace Mitchell (Head of Galleries), and Zoltan Sepeshy (Academy Director) that approached the Junior League with a plan. In a 1957 report by Mitchell during the Center’s development phase, he states, “ The personnel of the Cranbrook Academy of Art has become increasingly aware of the growing country-wide interest in the visual arts and has long wished to more directly participate in the fostering and guiding of this interest as expressed in our community.” Seeking support from the Junior League, this “unique opportunity to bring to the children of Oakland County an integrated program in art education which concerns itself with the totality of the art experience” was green-lighted for the following year.
A perfect partnership was formed. The Academy would provide leadership, through the support of its trustees, director, and faculty; the Junior League would provide the necessary finances. Naturally, with so many talented artists on campus, there was no lack of creativity or helping hands! Junior League members were also heavily involved, providing volunteer docents to conduct gallery tours and assist with classes, both of which were located on the ground level of the Museum below the Academy Library.
The Young People’s Art Center catered to children and teenagers from age 6 to 19 and consisted of three components: changing exhibitions that complemented K-12 school curricula along with the work of participating students; gallery tours of the exhibitions for school groups, with optional related studio sessions; and ten-week art classes, where once a week, after school or on Saturdays, children could work with a variety of media. Costs were nominal: $5 per studio lesson and $15 for classes; tours were free. Several scholarships were available to class attendees from the League or school PTAs. According to Betsy Kausch, in a 1963 League journal article, “The tuition fee has purposely been kept low to attract students of varying economic backgrounds.”
The overwhelming success of the programs (according to Wallace Mitchell, they were “oversubscribed for every session”) was undoubtedly in large part due to its supervisor and class instructor, Glen Michaels (1927-2020). A 1958 Academy graduate in Painting, Michaels’ undergraduate studies in music at Yale and his BA in arts education from Eastern Washington University greatly benefitted YPAC participants. Betsy Kausch said of Michaels, “Glen’s talent and enthusiasm and the fine training he gives are evident in the results of his teaching. Some of his students have been with him all five years of the program.” In Michaels’ last year with YPAC, 1965, over 2,000 children toured the galleries, 1,750 children participated in studio lessons (led by one of 16 CAA students), and nearly 500 students attended classes.
Michaels would continue to be active in the Detroit metro community for his entire career, predominately known locally for his sculptural assemblages, such as the mixed media screen he created for the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House, the station installation for the Detroit People Mover, or the acoustic sculpture walls of the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts.
While the Young People’s Art Center is no longer around, Cranbrook Art Museum continues its educational mission today through the Art Lab.
– Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research