Exploring 30 Years at the Dennos

March 11, 2021

Riley Kate Robinson
Staff Writer

Photos courtesy of Ann Swaney / NMC Archives

Dennos ribbon-cutting, July 6, 1991.  Barbara and Michael Dennos; John and Connie Binsfeld; Brenda Lijewski (Bertha Vos 6th grader who won the poster contest);  NMC Trustees James Beckett and Shirley Okerstrom;  and NMC President Tim Quinn.

This July marks 30 years since the opening of NMC’s Dennos Museum Center. The museum, which is known for its large collection of Inuit art, opened its doors in 1991 and has since been a focal point on NMC’s main campus.

“It is highly unusual for a community college or even four-year university to have a museum of our scale,” said Craig Hadley, executive director and chief curator of the museum. The museum’s permanent collection, the Inuit Art Collection, features the largest and most comprehensive collections of Inuit art and research catalogs in the United States.

The Inuit Art Collection was established in the 1960s by Bernie Rink, the then director of the Osterlin Library at NMC. Rink grew the original collection to more than 500 pieces through donations and annual purchases. The collection has now grown to more than 1,600 pieces. Every fall, the museum hosts the Cape Dorset Inuit Art exhibit as one of the oldest venues who has continuously shown the collection.

Prior to the opening of the museum, there wasn’t much of an art and culture network in Traverse City. “There was a strong desire to have a museum in Traverse City, particularly in the 70s and 80s,” said Hadley. It was around then when a group of NMC Fine Arts faculty members got together and dreamt up what is now the Dennos Museum.

Paul Welch, an NMC art professor, took on this vision and worked to ensure that it got followed through. Welch, along with Michael and Barbara Dennos, helped to collect pieces for a small teaching collection. This collection would go on to be some of the museum’s first pieces, along with the Inuit art that Rink was collecting.

With the help of the Dennos’s and multiple other community members, this project was turned from an NMC project to one for the whole community. “The way the Dennos was envisioned, it was envisioned as a bigger version of the Fine Arts building. With a visual side of the building and a performing arts side of the building,” Hadley explained.

Originally, the plan was to add the museum onto the Fine Arts building on campus. However, the location was disputed after some felt that the building would be hidden from the public. After contemplating other locations, including somewhere downtown, the building committee decided on placing it where it stands today, where Munson Avenue meets Front Street.

This location, however, was problematic at first, and the college even saw its first protest demonstration over the topic. When it was discussed that they would have to remove trees from campus to build the museum, a wave of media coverage and environmental activism met the planning committee. In the end, no stately pine trees were removed to build the building, but rather just scrub oaks and maple trees, and an abundance of poison ivy. This resolved the environmental concerns, and the original building was constructed.

Aside from the permanent Inuit collection, the museum features temporary exhibits, a sculpture court, and a hands-on Discovery Gallery.

Hadley also spoke about another pivotal person in the 30-year success of the museum. Eugene Jenneman was Hadley’s predecessor as the former executive director for the museum. “[Jenneman] was here for over 30 years, even before the building was built.”

Jenneman started his work for the museum in the 80s, working in the Osterlin Library sorting through the art that the college had collected prior to the opening of the museum. “His job was also to help design the building and envision what a museum would look like for NMC and for the community,” explained Hadley.

In 2017, the museum saw the opening of one of its biggest accomplishments yet, a 15,000 square foot expansion. This allowed the gallery to hold even more art in its permanent collection and to showcase more of the museum’s personal art collection from exhibits other than the Inuit gallery.

“It is a tremendous accomplishment to have 20,000 square feet of exhibit space for a community college museum. It is just incredible to have the resources that we have,” Hadley commented.

Looking toward the future, Hadley says that one of the main goals of the museum is to get nationally accredited through the the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), a process which will take possibly four to six more years to complete.

To become accredited, a museum must go through an intensive process that looks at multiple standards including but not limited to: public trust and accountability, leadership and organizational structure, and collections stewardship.

To celebrate the anniversary, the museum will feature multiple new exhibits that will be showcased throughout the rest of the year. The large exhibit, entitled “Blow Up 2,” features contemporary inflatable sculptures. Some of the sculptures are 14’ to 15’ tall.

“This is a really colorful and fun show and we are hoping that families will enjoy it. There is such a celebratory quality to the exhibit and we felt it was a nice way to kick off the 30th anniversary,” Hadley said.

The museum also took one of the smaller rotating galleries and programmed a series of shows for it to rotate every 30-60 days. With the frequent rotation of the smaller gallery, there is always something new to look at during a visit.

The museum, located on NMC’s main campus, is currently open from Sunday through Thursday, 11am to 5pm.

The Dennos Museum Center’s famed Inuit art collection started 31 years prior to the museum opening its doors. Northwestern Michigan College librarian Bernard “Bernie” Rink discovered the artwork in 1959, and held the first Inuit Art Collection gallery and art sale—accompanied by a borrowed live seal—in NMC’s library the following year. By the time Rink retired in 1986, he had accumulated hundreds of Inuit sculptures and prints via donations and purchases. Today, the collection he started is one of the largest in the United States.

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