Director. Priest. Husband. Brother. Artist.
These are just a few words family and colleagues would use to describe the late Michael Rush, founding director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, who passed away last week after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
“He was truly a man of the arts,”said Maryann Rush Hertig, Rush’s sister, in an email. “Michael approached all his endeavors with intellect, determination, imagination. He had vision and was able to share this with great enthusiasm and a keen sense of humor.”
Rush Hertig notes that her brother had an appreciation for art he shared with his whole family as well as a magnificent singing voice, something few knew.
“As a family member, he was fun, always interesting and always there when needed,” she said. “A true testament to his life is the many people who are impacted by his death. He leaves a space that can never be filled.”
Since it opened its doors in November 2012, the Broad Art Museum has become an international landmark on MSU’s campus. Students affectionately identify it for its design and prominence along Grand River Avenue, and visitors from around the world flock to experience contemporary art in a wholly unique form.
Under Rush’s direction, the museum highlighted exhibitions and art from around the world, reflecting MSU’s place in an international community.
“In the short time we were fortunate enough to call Michael a colleague, he had a profound impact on the university through his work with the Broad Museum and in the art community,” MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon wrote in an official statement. “The future accomplishments of the museum staff will always reflect the foundation he built.”
A man of the arts
Rush had a long and varied career that took him many places and brought him to MSU in 2010 as a visionary leading the completion of a 46,000-square-foot contemporary art museum.
He graduated from Harvard University with a doctorate in psychology and religion and was an ordained Jesuit priest in the late 1970s.
Rush went on to become a successful art critic, and in the early 2000s he earned a reputation as a passionate visionary and curator.
In 2005 Rush became the director of Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum, where he received international acclaim for his contributions.
During his tenure, the museum was faced with an imposed crisis when the university planned to sell the entire collection. Rush fiercely fought this plan and his leadership attracted major art gifts for the collection, but cost him his job.
Rush’s ferocious energy was one of his most notable qualities, said Dominique Nahas, an art curator in New York City who frequently worked with him.
“Michael Rush was known for his intense concentration and his extraordinary creative capabilities in terms of selecting art, writing about art and interpreting art for both a wide and a specialized public,” Nahas said.
Rush came to MSU in 2010, selected by Eli and Edythe Broad as the director of the Broad Art Museum.
The Broads donated $33 million for the development of the museum and admired Rush’s dedication to “set a high bar for innovative exhibitions and programming.”
“We are immensely appreciative of the dedication and commitment he demonstrated during the past two and a half years to making the museum an integral part of the East Lansing community and a world-class destination,” Eli Broad wrote in a statement following Rush’s death.
The Broad foundation
Zaha Hadid, a notable British architect, was brought on to design the building. Its silver sheen and sharp shapes make the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum known to MSU students who may have never even set foot inside the building.
When the museum opened its doors in 2012, the response was much greater than anticipated.
Nearly 6,000 people visited the museum during its first weekend, double the anticipated amount. Rush took this as a sign that the community was fully invested in the museum and continued to bring in a notable selection of contemporary works.
During his time at the museum, he kept the staff updated on his vision for the art on display.
Rush was recently awarded the International Award for Public Diplomacy celebrating his work at the Broad Art Museum and his international reach.
In the two years of his tenure, the museum brought more than 176,000 artists and visitors to East Lansing from places such as China, Africa, Istanbul and several others.
Rush’s admiration for contemporary art, especially the digital medium, made the Broad Art Museum a relevant institution on an international scale.
“I think Michael’s crowning achievement was the exhibition from China, ‘Future Returns,’” Deputy Director of Operations and Administration Bill Matt said. “Artists from China were able to come over and produce work here that never would have legally been allowed to exist in their home country.”
“Future Returns: Contemporary Art from China” ran through March 8 and presented an insider’s view of the rapid geographical changes taking place in China’s urban landscapes. The selection featured paintings, photographs, digital installations and videos from modern Chinese communities and imagined a transformation in the society.
“Michael was very emotional when that exhibition opened,” Matt continued.“He truly believed that it could have been displayed in any museum in the world.”
Engaging East Lansing
The museum’s focus on contemporary art extended beyond simply pulling and displaying paintings and sculptures from old collections. The emphasis on artists coming directly to East Lansing to create and present their art to the community reflected Rush’s desires to engage an international community through expression and creativity.
“Michael viewed the museum as the cultural arm of a global institution,” said assistant curator Yesomi Umolu. “As a new institution with a global focus, it provided a lot more freedom and opportunity for collaboration between artists and students in an academic setting.”
The education and public programming aspects of the museum also came about as products of Rush’s intense desire to share creations that critically examine the changing human condition. Each exhibition in the museum featured free artist talks, panel discussions, community tours and live performances.
The level to which Rush desired to engage with both local and international communities drew a large number of artists to East Lansing.
“His reputation and profile on a global scale attracted many artists and members of the staff,” said Whitney Stoepel, the museum’s director of public relations. “I even came here from Chicago myself for a chance to work with him.”
The staff of the Broad Art Museum said that Rush was often reserved about his personal life, but deeply engaged with the small number of staff members about the content of the museum itself.
“We knew he was sick,” Matt said. “But it was still a shock when he passed away. And a lot of us felt like we didn’t get a proper chance to say goodbye.”