Vasudhara, Goddess of Wealth and Abundance, 1100s, Nepal, copper, gold, gem stones.

Explore a dramatic new wing for Asian art and culture at the DIA namedfor Robert and Katherine Jacobs.

By Suzanne Chessler Contributing Writer

In the middle of a hectic 1970s day while attending Wayne State University Law School, Robert Jacobs decided he needed a break, and the nearby Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) came to mind.

Sure enough, the paintings and sculptures — classical and contemporary — briefly diverted his attention into an impressive realm. His appreciation for art had evolved through visits to many museums during worldwide travels, and he regularly returned to explore DIA holdings in more depth.

Jacobs’ interest in the DIA collection and operations deepened after graduation as he entered the area workforce. Taking on management responsibilities in the family-acquired business, Buddy’s Pizza (see sidebar), Jacobs also became active in DIA governance. He served on various committees and now is a member of the board of directors.

Jacobs’ wife, Katherine, a clinical psychologist, shares his interest in art and visiting art centers while traveling. The couple, who met through a yoga and meditation teacher, expanded their knowledge of Asian cultures while spending time in Eastern countries, where they became familiar with the distinctive forms of artistry.

The two decided to gift pieces and funding to the DIA so others could experience what means so much to them, and their gestures prompted DIA administrators to name a newly renovated building section in their honor.

The Robert and Katherine Jacobs Asian Wing, just opened in November, displays objects and themes that represent diverse art forms, cultural practices and systems of belief spanning thousands of years. Individual galleries divide up Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian and Southeast Asian art with an additional space that focuses on Buddhist art across Asia.

“Because I was born in Detroit and lived in the Dexter-Davison area until I was 11, my feelings for the city are very, very strong,” says Jacobs, whose position as Buddy’s CEO spanned 25 years. “This gift is a way of giving back and trying to improve the quality of life for Metro Detroiters and travelers.

“As someone in the restaurant business who watches operations, I continue to notice how DIA staff members and volunteers are very welcoming and go out of their way to be inclusive to all kinds of individuals and groups.

“I respect the leadership and the direction administrators are taking. It’s like a special kind of gathering place. I’m a proponent of the docent program, which helps people looking at art learn about the history and culture associated with each piece on display.”

Exploring Themes
The Asian galleries, enlarged from 1,398 square feet to 6,900 square feet with a reassignment of space, have been designed to explore themes. In the area of Chinese painting, viewers can leave responses to the works they see in keeping with ages-old traditions. Korean works showcase the continuing ideal of harmony. Hindu sculptures demonstrate access to devotional beliefs.

Seven community members representing the cultures spotlighted, but not professionally associated with the arts, were selected to collaborate with DIA staff in brainstorming ideas.

“There are about 140 pieces on view now; but, with rotation, we’re going to be displaying more than 300 objects in these galleries over the course of time,” says Katherine Kasdorf, DIA assistant curator of Arts of Asia & the Islamic World. “The objects we display are dependent on what we have in our collection.

“Almost all of the paintings and textiles in the new galleries are light sensitive so we’ll be changing works on display every six months. For every painting or textile seen in the galleries, we need to have eight lined up ready to go on display over the next few years and then we can go back to the first group. Visitors can return every few months and see completely new works of art.”

One work donated by Robert and Katherine Jacobs and currently on view is a relief sculpture of Vishnu, the Hindu god, and is located in the Southeast Asia section. Made of beige sandstone in the 900s, it has smaller-scale figures carved in the stone framing it.

“It’s a really wonderful, engaging sculpture, and we developed a special type of label, almost like a small book,” says Kasdorf, who explains that beliefs associated with Vishnu have to do with preserving balance in the universe. “Visitors can page through to learn multiple layers of significance pertaining to the piece.”

As a visitor to the wing, Jacobs particularly relates to two other works.

Yogini Goddess, a sculpture from southern India made in the 900s, combines imagery related to both auspicious and threatening qualities connected to power. Head of Buddha, made of cast iron and dating back to the 800s, has a very serene expression communicating a sense of peace.

“While the Yogini is a sculpture that expresses movement, the Buddha is very still and calming,” Jacobs says. “Both are beautifully carved and show artistic skills of high quality helping to train my eyes to appreciate great quality Asian art. “

Jacobs extends his multicultural interests by enjoying and supporting the array of movies shown by the Detroit Film Theatre at the DIA.

“The theater brings in movies that the conventional, for-profit theaters do not show — whether specialty productions made in the United States or movies made in other countries,” Jacobs says. “I’m glad to see so many people enjoy the films as much as I do.”

Jacobs, a member of Temple Shir Shalom, also supports diverse initiatives in the Jewish community, a commitment carried down from his late parents, Shirlee and William Jacobs. She had a strong interest in Israeli causes, and he was a founder of the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation.

Just as he followed his parents’ interests, Jacobs hopes to pass along his interest in art to youngsters.

“Some of the school systems don’t teach art in classrooms anymore, and the DIA is taking their place,” he says. “We sponsored a program where 1,900 teachers a year come to the DIA and learn the technique of Visual Thinking Strategies, an approach to asking questions about what is seen and felt when experiencing art.

“That’s a great way of spending money efficiently because the teachers carry these ideas back to classrooms to instill critical thinking skills.”


The Robert and Katherine Jacobs Asian Wing can be seen Tuesdays-Fridays free of charge for Wayne, Oakland and Macomb County residents and DIA members. (313) 833-7900;

The Buddy’s Pizza Legacy

Billy Jacobs, circa 1950, with his young son Robert. Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

William and Shirlee Jacobs bought Buddy’s Pizza in 1970, when it was an established specialty restaurant on Six Mile and Conant in Detroit. Like so many customers, they enjoyed what became known as the Detroit-style square pizza.

Drawing customers and continuing as ownership changed was a Sicilian-based recipe originated by August “Gus” Guerra, who launched Buddy’s in 1946 before selling to Jimmy Bonacorse and Jimmy Valenti in 1953.

While William “Billy” Jacobs concentrated on a realty business, son Robert took charge of management responsibilities for Buddy’s after finishing law school.

“The great joy of the business has been bringing enjoyment to the people we serve,” Jacobs says. “I had great people working for me, and we were able to sponsor many community events as a team.”

Under Jacobs, CEO for 25 years, the business thrived with expansion to 13 Buddy’s restaurants in the metro area. The most recent opened at the Detroit Zoo last spring.

Over its many years, Buddy’s has been recognized by leading taste reviewers for serving high-quality menu choices.

A partnership came in January 2018 with CapitalSpring, a private investment firm focused exclusively on the branded restaurant industry. The plan is to extend new store growth across the Midwest and beyond.

“I now am a board member with one vote out of five,” Jacobs says. “We are hiring great people for growth while the food standards and processes are being maintained and improved.”