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Art world, meet East Lansing: could new museum change downtown?

Photo Courtesy of MSU News

East Lansing is your classic college town: a laid-back mix of beer, bongs and bookstores.  

But with the opening of a $45 million modern art museum, suddenly the international world is paying attention to "good 'ol Michigan State."

As Michigan Radio's Kate Wells reports, some locals like the attention more than others. 

For something right across from a Taco Bell, the Broad art museum sure smells like money.

At a lunchtime preview for the press, jet-lagged London architects are murmuring to glossy art mag reporters. Everybody's wearing black, of course, and talking in art-speak.

One European reporter leans a small pool of reporters’ microphones that have formed around a silver-haired man: "Some people criticize that buildings, architecture's becoming too much of a, you know, staple thing. What would you say to that?"

The silver-haired man in the neat suit is Eli Broad – the MSU alum and art world heavyweight who gave $28 million to build the museum.  "I don't think it's a stable thing at all, I think it's very dynamic,” he says.

World-famous architect Zaha Hadid did the honors. And the result looks like the Millenium Falcon from “Star Wars” landed in East Lansing.

"It looks really spacey, like something NASA did. Just very, very sharp," says Will Peltier. He’s walking by on this way to class, and says students have already nicknamed the museum “the spaceship.”

Smack dab in the center of busy East Grand River Avenue, the Broad Museum is not subtle.

It's 46,000 square feet of sharp, lunging angles; a rectangle of slanting steel fins.

Back inside, MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon is the only one at the museum not wearing black. She's practical in a brown pantsuit and a chunky Spartan ring. She says with this museum, big things are coming.    

"We're sort of taken for granted as, gee whiz, good ol' MSU. You needed to have something that would be so dramatic, and dynamic, that people would actually come to have that economic impact." 

That economic impact could come from tens of thousands of art pilgrims. They’re projected to spend more than five million dollars a year here, according to MSU's economic impact report.

But the report also says this town is more...casual than the typical art tourist prefers.

In other words, it's less boutique hotels and more head shops.

"Yeah, water pipes, dry pipes, everything. We get all walks of life [in here],” says Emily Arin, who mans the cash register at In Flight Sports. It's right across from the new museum and it's sort of a stoner haven, selling disc golf equipment, Bob Marley flags and locally-made bongs.

Arin's an art history major, so she's says excited about the museum's opening.  But she's not so sure anything in East Lansing is really going to change.

"Maybe. I don't know. I feel like, we're pretty stubborn people, so we'll probably just be like, take it or leave it."

So far, it's hard to find any downtown business that's rolling out the red carpet for the expected art hungry hordes. The closest might be Wanderer's Tea House, which is mixing up a special Broad Museum Tea.

"It's infused with dried strawberries, and hibiscus flower. And, let's see, what else we got in here? Some osmanthus flower?"

Barista Andy Beaudoin says so far, there haven't been a lot of takers on the tea. But as for the museum, he says sure, some people don't like the change.

"I feel like people who are like, oh, I've been at MSU for years! And North Campus is the old campus, that's what we should keep it as. Well I mean, there's not really an art museum to go on art campus. And if there is one, there's not really one that's like, sexy."

One other thing is new: the city is planting a tourism bureau right across from the museum.

Anne Lavender has only been in that job a couple of days. She says the museum likley won't mean a massive makeover for the town, but rather a new opportunity.

"East Lansing's going to be...East Lansing. And you know, there may be some additional visitors coming in. But that's because we'll have thousands of additional visitors coming in just for the Broad."

Whether these art pilgrims will actually show up is one thing. And if they influence the feel of East Lansing, Lavender says that's ok: towns, after all, are always changing. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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