A museum that reflects its community? The Detroit Institute of Arts is working to diversify the collection – cialisdfr
A museum that reflects its community?  The Detroit Institute of Arts is working to diversify the collection
A museum that reflects its community?  The Detroit Institute of Arts is working to diversify the collection

Detroit —Tiff Massey, a noted Detroit artist, recalls one of the first things she said to the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts when she first met him in 2015: “It’s about time.”

Seated near the DIA’s Salvador Salor-Pons at dinner, Massey, who is black, was talking about a “30 Americans” exhibit that debuted the same year Salor-Pons became the museum’s director. The exhibit featured contemporary African American artists.

“It was the first time I saw … what the population of Detroit actually looks like in that space,” Massey said, referring to the DIA.

Nine years later, the DIA continues to try to reflect the community it serves, adding more works to its permanent collection by black artists and other artists of color. The museum — recently voted the best art museum in the country in a poll — also has a new chairman of its board of directors, Lane Coleman, the first African-American to hold the position. The museum has added a director of inclusion to its staff and has committed to using a percentage of the money for new art acquisitions by black, women and underrepresented artists.

Massey herself will debut an exhibition with the DIA later this spring, “7 Mile + Livernois,” about the northwest Detroit area where she grew up. It opens on May 5 and will remain at the museum for one year.

During a recent interview with The Detroit News, Salor-Pons, who has worked at the DIA since 2008 when he joined as a curator, recalled visiting Massey’s studio early last month.

“She’s doing an amazing job,” he said. “We are very excited for her upcoming show.”

Massey’s show will be on display for a year, in part to help increase his presence among touring students.

“I really want these kids to see that someone from Detroit is celebrated at DIA,” Salor-Pons said.

The upcoming show reflects the DIA’s continued drive to be a world-class museum and inclusive organization, officials said. Depending on who you ask, the museum and Salort-Pons continue to grow their reputation as a leader among major museums in representing black artists as well as reaching out to local black residents.

But some still have sharp criticism of the DIA and Salort-Pons in particular for not addressing the systemic change needed at the elite institution.

The dual narrative of the DIA and Salort-Pons doesn’t surprise Kelly Morgan, senior curator and interim vice president of exhibitions at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.

Morgan said traditional “encyclopedic” institutions were not meant to function for non-white audiences. While it’s a “great thing” to invest in black and brown artists, it goes so far beyond that, she said.

“Do they go into communities and just listen? What does it look like to go to, say, Brightmoor (a Detroit neighborhood) and ask, ‘What do you need?’ and ‘What are you already doing and how can we contribute to that?'” Morgan said.

Instead, she said, too often institutions like the DIA engage communities with a “we’re coming to give you something” attitude.

Collections of predominantly white art

Museum curators, along with board members, help determine the art that is displayed in art institutions. A 2019 study by the Mellon Foundation found that 1.2 percent of works in all major U.S. museums were created by black artists, with 9 percent by Asian artists and 2.8 percent by Hispanic and Latino artists.

The DIA has more than 65,000 works in its collection, making it one of the top six collections in the nation, according to museum officials. The company could not provide a breakdown of its vast collection, but said over the past few years it has “pursued international acquisition efforts” to increase works by “underrepresented artists,” according to a DIA statement.

In the past few years, over half of the works purchased, representing more than 50% of the money spent, were works by “underrepresented cultures and artists”.

Another problem in museums is management. Fewer than 20 percent of art museum leadership positions are held by people of color and other underrepresented populations, according to a 2021 report fund by the Ford Foundation and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.

The DIA said 25% of curatorial staff are either black, Indigenous or people of colour, and 69% are women.

Art by underrepresented artists

When Sallot-Pons became director, he launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to acquire more artwork by black Americans. He and his wife have also long attended such events as the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, a group of artists from across Metro Detroit who meet regularly in the city to network and introduce up-and-coming artists. The DIA’s General Motors Center for African American Art was also one of the first curatorial departments devoted to black art in a major museum.

But these steps have not shielded the museum and Salort-Pons from continued criticism. In 2021, seven of the DIA’s 54 board members resigned as controversy erupted over the museum’s workplace culture.

The museum hired an outside law firm to investigate the claims, and their findings were leaked to a whistleblower organization and the media. The findings show some staff face a culture of fear and Salort-Pons has a “lack of facilities for race-related issues”.

Since then, in 2021, DIA created a Director of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access. It also created a new paid internship program in the hopes that it would attract interns from a variety of economic backgrounds. Salor-Pons said the level of diversity among curatorial positions is much higher than at many other cultural institutions.

“We continue to work on this through our HR department to make sure we have a good, diverse pool of candidates whenever we have a job opening,” he said.

“We learned a lot from this period,” Salor-Pons said of the 2021 controversy. “At this point, you have to have important conversations at the council level and at the museum. You have to keep listening and learning.”

New desk chair

As the new chairman of the DIA board, Coleman joins some of the biggest names in Michigan to hold that title. Previous board chairs include Richard Manoukian and, more recently, Eugene Gargaro.

Coleman — a longtime Detroit resident who is the founder and CEO of Strike Group LLC, a support logistics and materials supply business — recently joined the DIA board when the controversy surfaced.

“I knew some of the people who decided to leave, it was a bit disconcerting for me,” he said. “But you know, I thought about it like this: If there’s a problem, why resign? I want to be part of the solution.

“If there’s a problem at DIA, well, I’m not leaving. I’m here to help fix it if there is such a thing to fix. I never hesitated.”

DIA said its current board consists of 43 members and 20, or about 47 percent, are people of color.

Coleman said he really wants the museum to be seen as a place “for everyone” in Detroit. He said Massey’s “7 Mile + Livernois” exhibition will impress in many ways. He and his family have lived nearby for years. His daughters attended the same high school that Massey attended.

Massey said the upcoming show is the biggest showcase of her career in Detroit.

“It’s actually a mid-career retrospective,” she said, who just turned 42. “There will be many of the works and conversations I’ve had throughout my artistic career.”

As for the fair representation debates swirling around the DIA, Massey said “the whole world is going through it.”

“What can you say about an institution that does what institutions do?” Massey said. “They were never meant to be inclusive spaces, were they? The same thing has actually been happening since the beginning of time. You see, for example, the rich families who wanted to be painted in the portraits of the churches to talk about their importance and their relationship with God. At the end of the day, the institution is only a product of society, and until society says we want something different.”


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