Detroit Institute of Arts presents “Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020”

"1960 Chrysler," 1956, Dave Cummins, American; prismacolor on vellum. Collection of Brett Snyder.

DETROIT — In celebration of Detroit’s history as the hub of American automotive design, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) presents the special exhibition Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020, from November 15, 2020 through June 27, 2021.

The exhibition highlights the artistry and influence of Detroit car designers working between 1950 and the present day. The exhibition will feature 12 coupes and sedans inside the permanent collection galleries that feature significant achievements in style and technology. The exhibition includes unique examples of celebrated, experimental show cars created for display as well as iconic production models sold to the mass market. Design drawings, many of them rarely seen by the public, and archival photographs will help visitors experience the creative and innovative processes that bring a vehicle from the drawing board to the road.

The exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to learn how designers create the beautiful forms of the cars that captivate our imaginations. The cars and drawings on display are striking examples of their inventive skill. They also document the changing landscape of American culture from 1950–2020, using new technologies to appeal to the fantasies and ambitions of their day.

The cars, four representing each of the Big Three American automakers, will share the galleries with a selection of modern and contemporary paintings and a sculpture that highlight the conversation between the American art world and car culture.

“The automotive industry and the city of Detroit are synonymous with one another, so it seems only fitting that the DIA be the museum to showcase the rich history of car design in the city,” said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons. “This exhibition will showcase the similarities between the art of car design and the creative process sculptors of the past used to create their masterpieces. Just like sculptors, they start with drawings and preliminary sketches, then produce clay models and from there, “manufacture” the final product.”

Detroit Style marks the first time cars have been inside the museum since 1983. Some of the highlights include a 1958 General Motors Firebird III, an experiment in futuristic space age design with towering fins and an early version of autonomous driving technology. The 1970 Plymouth Barracuda is a legendary Detroit pony car that captured the world’s imagination and still defines the attitude and prowess of American cars. The 2017 Ford GT supercar shows how designers reinterpret the past with new materials and technology to shape visions of the future.

Ford Motor Company, GT, 2017. Collection of Jody and Tara Ingle.

Other exhibition highlights include the emotionally resonant painting Rusting Red Car in Kuau (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) which explores the personal resonances of cars  that mark both success and difficult journeys. Standard StationAmarillo, Texas (1963) by Edward Joseph Ruscha (born 1937) is an icon of Pop Art, capturing an American landscape of spaces and symbols shaped by and for the car.

“This exhibit is a love letter to Detroit, and a celebration of an artform pioneered in our own backyard, said Ben Colman, curator of the Detroit Style exhibition. “It is a privilege to share some of the stories of the Detroit designers who transformed the modern world with their work.”

Due to the current global pandemic, school field trips to the museum are on hold until further notice but the museum’s Education Department is working to create a series of educational resources that can be accessed by both parents and teachers online. There are also plans for an educator workshop surrounding the exhibition.

Additional elements of the exhibition include a playlist of verbal descriptions, available on the museum’s YouTube page, designed to increase accessibility and to give visitors with vision loss access to select vehicles and artworks in the exhibition. 

Visitors and individuals at home will be invited to create their own drawing of a car to submit. A selection of submitted drawings will be featured in the exhibition throughout its run. A worksheet has been created to help inspire people’s ideas. The worksheet will be available on the museum’s website once the exhibition opens, and can be submitted via social media platforms using the #CarsDIA hashtag.

A playlist will be available on the DIA’s YouTube page and website featuring in-depth video interviews with designers in the automotive industry including Emeline King, Ed Welburn, Craig Metros, and Ralph Gilles.

Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 19502020 is organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“Lincoln XL-500 Concept Car,” 1952, Charles E. Balogh, American; watercolor, gouache, airbrush, ink, graphite on illustration board. Collection of Robert L. Edwards and Julie Hyde-Edwards.

Major funding is generously provided by the Ford Motor Company Fund, General Motors, and Mrs. Jennifer Adderley in loving memory of her husband, Mr. Terence E. Adderley.

Additional funding is provided by the Marvin and Betty Danto Family Foundation, FCA US LLC, The Suburban Collection, Jennifer & David Fischer and Darcy & David Fischer, Jr., and Consolidated Rail Corporation on behalf of William Milliken.

Additional support is provided by Barbara and William U. Parfet, TCF National Bank, The Fisher & Company Family, and the Friends of African & African American Art. 

Major funding for the exhibition catalogue is generously provided by the Margaret Dunning Foundation.

For more information on the exhibition visit:

Admission to the exhibition is included with general museum admission, which is always free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. At this time visitors are required to reserve a timed museum admission ticket before arrival. Mask are required to enter the museum. Admission to the exhibition will be limited to allow for proper social distancing inside the exhibition space.

Chrysler Corporation. Plymouth Barracuda, 1970. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

About the DIA:

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), one of the premier art museums in the United States, is home to more than 60,000 works that comprise a multicultural survey of human creativity from ancient times through the 21st century. From the first Van Gogh painting to enter a U.S. museum (Self-Portrait, 1887), to Diego Rivera’s world-renowned Detroit Industry murals (1932–33), the DIA’s collection is known for its quality, range and depth. The DIA’s mission is to create opportunities for all visitors to find personal meaning in art.

Source: Detroit Institute of Arts

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