Funded by a gift of $5 million from the Mort and Brigitte Harris Foundation, the Detroit Institute of Arts will hire a new curator and acquire works across media that illuminate the interrelated creative and technological design and functional endeavors that defined and continues to characterize the ingenuity and development of the American automotive industry, with an emphasis on Detroit’s distinctive place in this narrative.
The new collection will be launched with a gift of 91 automotive drawings from Julie Hyde-Edwards, which represents decades of study, collecting, and advocacy by the donor and her late husband, Robert Edwards, on behalf of Detroit car designers and the art they produced.
“I am grateful to Mort’s son, Stuart Harris, and Brigitte’s daughter, Michele Becker, and trustee Doreen Vitti, with support from Mort’s partner, Sandy Morrison, for continuing the Harris family’s longstanding and generous support of the museum,” says Salvador Salort-Pons, director of the DIA. “Mort’s leadership and generosity helped shape so many institutions in Detroit over his lifetime.
“Together with Brigitte, their interest in art and the DIA were a joy to witness. This gift is enhanced by the extraordinary collection of works donated by Julie-Hyde Edwards, who with Robert Edwards, tirelessly worked to preserve and document these fragile artworks to make it possible for future generations to experience and fall in love with the work of these Detroit artists.”
The Harris Foundation will name a new curatorial position, the Mort Harris Curator of Automotive, Industrial, and Decorative Design. The curator will guide the museum in collecting concept drawings, models, paintings, prints, photographs, posters, architectural renderings, toys, time-based media, digital, and other media to knit together the aesthetic, social, political, and economic narratives of transportation design.
This collection will explore the facets of modern life shaped by car design, including the natural and built environments, work and leisure, art, and commerce, as well as consumer interests in safety and speed, practicality and aspiration, and utility and beauty.
The concerns of taste, technology, and consumerism connect to many aspects of the DIA’s existing collections — from the documentary photography of Robert Frank to the sculptural products of abstract expressionism to the colorful advertising aesthetics of pop art and beyond.
Automotive design stands as just one facet of industrial design. Accordingly, the department will build on its existing American and European industrial and decorative design holdings and will thoughtfully expand these collections, demonstrating the continuum and interconnected nature of these fields with their common designers, materials, and service to the workaday needs and deluxe aspirations of modern life.
Mort Harris, who passed away on May 5, 2021 after living for 101 years, was a co-founder of American Axle and Manufacturing Holdings Inc. in Detroit. He served as a Flying Fortress first pilot during World War II, where he flew 33 missions and received three Distinguished Flying Crosses, six Air Medals, Polish Medal of Honor, and a Presidential Citation.
He also was knighted into the French Legion of Honor. Following the war, he was president of Mercier Corp., a metallurgical supplier, co-founder of Euroad, which became one of the largest trucking companies in Europe, and acquired Erie Coke and Chemical Co., which he built into the largest privately owned coke company in the United States.
To learn more about Detroit’s rich automotive design history, read DBusiness magazine’s recent feature of retired photographer Jim Secreto’s collection of automotive advertising art here.