A museum that reflects its community? Detroit Institute of Arts works to diversify collection

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

Seated near the DIA’s Salvador Salort-Pons at a dinner, Massey, who is Black, was referring to an exhibit, “30 Americans,” that debuted the same year Salort-Pons became the museum’s director. The exhibit showcased contemporary African American artists.

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

Nine years later, the DIA continues to try to reflect the community it serves, adding more pieces to its permanent collection by Black artists and other artists of color. The museum — recently voted in one poll as the best art museum in the country — also has a new chair 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 committed to using a certain percent of money for new acquisitions on art from Black, women and underrepresented artists.

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

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

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

Massey’s show will be on display for one year partly to help increase its exposure to touring school children.

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

The upcoming show reflects the DIA’s continual pursuit of being a world-class museum and an inclusive organization, officials said. Depending on whom you ask, the museum and Salort-Pons continue to add to its reputation as a leader among major museums for showcasing Black artists as well as its outreach to local Black residents.

But some still have withering criticisms about the DIA and Salort-Pons in particular for not addressing the systemic change needed at the elite institution.

The dual narrative about the DIA and Salort-Pons doesn’t surprise Kelli 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 are not designed to function for a non-White audience. While it’s “a great thing” to invest in Black and Brown artists, it goes so far beyond that, she said.

“Are they going into communities and just listening? What does it look like to go into 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 the attitude of “we’re coming in to give you something.”

Predominantly White art collections

Museum curators, along with board members, help determine the art that gets displayed in art institutions. A 2019 study by the Mellon Foundation found 1.2% of works in all major U.S. museums were created by Black artists, with 9% for Asian artists and 2.8% for Hispanic and Latinx 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. It couldn’t provide a breakdown of its vast collection, but stated in the past several years it has “pursued an international acquisition effort” to increase the works of “under-represented creators,” according to a DIA statement.

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

Another issue at museums is the leadership. Less than 20% 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 its curatorial staff are either Black, indigenous or people of color and 69% are women.

Art from underrepresented artists

When Salort-Pons became director, he launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to acquire more art by Black Americans. He and his wife also have long attended such events as the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, a group of artists from all over 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 also is one of the first curatorial departments dedicated to Black American art in a major museum.

But those steps haven’t shielded the museum and Salort-Pons from ongoing critiques. In 2021, seven of the 54 DIA’s board members resigned as controversy swirled 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 results found some employees face a culture of fear and Salort-Pons has “a lack of facility with race-related issues.”

Since then, the DIA created a director of inclusion, diversity, equity and access in 2021. It’s also established a new paid internship program in hopes it will attract interns from various economic backgrounds. Salort-Pons said the level of diversity among curatorial positions is much higher than at many other cultural institutions.

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

“We learned a lot from that period,” Salort-Pons said of the 2021 controversies. “At that point, you have to have important conversations at the board level and in the museum. You have to keep listening and learning.”

New board chair

As the DIA’s new board chair, Coleman joins some of the biggest names in Michigan to carry that title. Previous board chairs include Richard Manoogian and more recently Eugene Gargaro.

Coleman — a longtime Detroit resident who is founder and chief executive officer of Strike Group LLC, a sustainment logistics and material supply-sourcing venture — had recently joined the DIA board when the controversies surfaced.

“I knew some of the folks that decided to leave, it was a little disturbing to me,” he said. “But you know, I thought about it like this: If there is a problem, why would I resign? I want to be part of the solution.

“If there’s an issue going on at the DIA, well, I’m not leaving. I’m here and I want to help fix it if there is such a thing to fix. I’ve never wavered.”

The DIA said its current board is made up of 43 members and 20 or about 47% 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” exhibit will hit home in many ways. He and his family have lived nearby for years. His daughters went to the same high school that Massey attended.

Massey said the upcoming show is the largest exhibition of her career in Detroit.

“This is basically a mid-career retrospective,” she said, who just turned 42. “It’s going to have a lot of the works and the conversations that I’ve been having during my artistic career.”

As far as the debates about fair representation swirling around the DIA, Massey said the “whole world is going through that.”

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


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