01/26/2012 05:47 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

A Balancing Act

Rembrandt and Jesus. Jesus or Rembrandt? Which name headlines the marquee? Is it the world-renowned painter, who continues to bring us extraordinary visions hundreds of years after his death? Or does Jesus automatically trump everyone on the playing field because, after all, he is Jesus? Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, the current exhibition at the DIA, is an extraordinary double bill, and in many ways it perfectly illustrates some of the programming challenges facing contemporary cultural institutions.

When the DIA's now retired chief curator first proposed the idea of Rembrandt and Jesus several years ago, we jumped. Star-quality artists are the engines of blockbuster exhibitions, and blockbuster exhibitions bring thousands of people into the museum. Not that we will ever recover the full cost of RFJ -- as we call it -- but a blockbuster offers the museum the opportunity to reach more people, attract more interest and, perhaps, convert a casual museum visitor into a disciple. Musician friends bemoan yet another round of Beethoven symphonies or Vivaldi's Four Seasons, but in arts marketing familiarity does not breed contempt. Museum visitors and concert-goers want to experience something that's a little bit familiar. We know that we like Beethoven's music. We can even hum a few bars. We know a little bit about Rembrandt; Dutch, an "Old Master," dead for a few hundred years but still a popular name. That familiarity provides visitors with a knowledge base that helps them feel more comfortable with an experience that is not an everyday occasion for most people.

But RFJ presented the DIA with an interesting challenge -- how does a secular, public institution present an exhibition focused solely on one of the most revered and recognizable religious figures in history? How do you handle subject matter that is deeply spiritual for one visitor, but simply an amazing work of art to another? Our curators and educators began their interpretive investigation with the art -- the basis for everything we do at the DIA. That investigation led them to confer with various members of the Christian and Jewish communities since Rembrandt was the first notable western artist who moved beyond the "heroic" portrayal of Jesus to depict him as a sensitive, contemplative Jew. Along the way members of other faiths and those not particularly religious helped draw a picture of an intelligent, searching artist living in an exceptionally tolerant community. That search in an Amsterdam long gone provided an interpretive framework that accepted and honored a multiplicity of views, and resulted in an exhibition that has drawn praise and crowds.

Marketing RFJ turned the tables. Marketers identify the value proposition. What about the product will move the largest number of people off the couch and into the museum as quickly as possible? Exhibitions generally run just twelve weeks. That gives most of us plenty of time to procrastinate, but Jesus has been powerful motivation for centuries. In the initial meeting with our ad firm -- Goodby, Silverstein and Partners -- there was no disagreement that Jesus would carry the campaign, though that did raise some concerns among museum staff. Consequently, the DIA's marketing team became the scale. How best to balance artist and subject, understanding that subject would be the compelling argument for most ticket buyers? Further, we had to be sure we were treating our subject appropriately. For Rembrandt and many potential visitors, we were dealing with more than the historic Jesus; we were dealing with the spiritual. So "See Jesus in a New Light" made the headline cut. "If Jesus Came to Detroit Would You Go See Him?" didn't. "Painter - Carpenter - Masterpiece" was an attempt to give R and J equal weight. In the end that's the challenge for all of us in the cultural community; balance. How can we offer audiences the familiar and the popular, while still challenging their intellect and assumptions? We are more than a movie (though we do show some excellent, thought-provoking ones at the Detroit Film Theatre), more than a sporting event or an afternoon stroll through the mall. We are both entertainment and education, and when our visitors leave feeling satisfied on both levels, they see the museum in a new light.

By the way, RFJ is now in its final weeks. It closes February 12. Nearly 72,000 people have seen the exhibition and tickets are selling fast. Please don't wait until the last weekend to see it, but even if you do, we'll still be happy to see you!