Has the Detroit Institute of Arts lost touch with its hometown?
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Has the Detroit Institute of Arts lost touch with its hometown?
Bill Harris, a writer and emeritus professor of English at Wayne State University, outside of the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Aug. 23, 2020. “It’s still a white institution,” said Harris, who visited as a young boy even though he didn’t feel welcome. Brittany Greeson/The New York Times.

by Graham Bowley

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The Detroit Institute of Arts had just avoided selling off parts of its collection to help pay the debts of the city that owned it.

It had a new, independent ownership structure, new revenue streams and a new standing as a museum that tried to replace the foreboding demeanor of many art institutions with a more welcoming, visitor-centered experience.

And it had a new director, Salvador Salort-Pons, who had come from its ranks, a charismatic curator and Spanish-born scholar of Velázquez, who seemed to understand its struggles and its future and who took office to a rousing ovation at a board meeting in 2015.

But five years later, at a time when museum leaders across the country are being challenged on whether their institutions are systemically racist, few are confronting as many thorny issues as Salort-Pons.

Current and former staff have called for his resignation, complaining he has developed a corrosive, authoritarian manner while retaining a certain obtuseness on matters of race in a city that is predominantly Black.

Staff morale was so low in 2017 that nearly half of the museum staff told surveyors that they did not believe it was a work culture where they could thrive, citing disrespect and a sense their opinions were ignored.

And there are concerns that he has flouted ethics rules. A complaint from staff about how he has handled works of art owned by his father-in-law has been filed with state and federal regulators, and a law firm hired by the museum is reviewing the matter.

Nonetheless, Salort-Pons, 50, retains the unwavering support of the museum board, as well as that of some Black leaders from Detroit who suggest his critics are unfair and overlooking the many steps he has taken to reach out to their community.

“Most of us are well aware that his recent predecessors never set one foot into neighborhoods in which Salort-Pons has routinely visited,” Marsha Music, a Detroit-based writer wrote in a published post.

But the crisis the director faces is a real and significant one for a museum charged with managing a truly world-class collection of art while balancing its commitments to the city in which it sits and to three counties that now provide the bulk of its financing.

“There has been discontent,” said Jeffrey Abt, professor emeritus at Wayne State University who has written about the history of the institute. “I can see how it is potentially perilous.”

“On one side are the unhappy staff members who are objecting to Salvador’s administration,” he added. “On the other side are the friends outside the museum he has made over the years who think that, here, they have someone who is championing their cause.”

The level to which the 135-year-old museum relates to Detroit has long been an issue. For decades, the institute, housed in an austere, formal, classical structure, was perceived by many as a bastion of the city’s elite — a home for Old World art in a place run mainly by a wealthy white old guard.

But beginning in the early 2000s, under Salort-Pons’ predecessor, the museum worked to appeal to a broader, more diverse audience.

It became one of the first museums in America to establish galleries dedicated to African American art. Its visitor-centered methodology sought detailed feedback and cooperation from community groups. Two Black women were hired as curators to great fanfare in 2016.

One might have imagined, then, that in recent weeks, as questions about racism and race have roiled America’s art institutions, a museum in Detroit that had already begun to reckon with its place in the community would have been in a position to provide some counsel on the way forward.

Instead, according to Salort-Pons’ critics, it has been found wanting.

The museum’s Center for African-American Art has been pushed down the institute’s hierarchy so that it now reports to the head of the modern and contemporary art department, a move that the critics say downplays its importance. The two Black curators hired in 2016 have left, complaining bitterly of being “undermined” and silenced.

“He is not American, so he does not get what diversity, equity and inclusion means,” said Susan Larsen, former director of publishing and collections information. “I would not say he is racist. But he does not seem to understand the nuances of racial issues that are needed in a museum director today.”

Salort-Pons has acknowledged that, given his background, he needs to do more to broaden his understanding of race in America. In an email to staff last month, he wrote: “I believe that we can create and foster a workplace that embodies fairness, inclusion, curiosity and respect.”

In defending his efforts, he has pointed to his appearances at venues such as the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, which has strong connections to the African American community.

The museum under his leadership held a show on Black art and civil rights unrest from 1967 and another on works created by African Americans that are owned by Detroit-area collectors. In a first for the museum, he paid more than $1 million for a work by a Black artist, “Bird,” by David Hammons.

“When I have my programs, Salvador and his wife often show up for all these events,” said Valerie Mercer, senior curator of African American art.

But Salort-Pons’ critics say that whatever outreach efforts he has made, some employees feel they are not listened to, or worse. “As a person of color, I have experienced censorship of Black voices by Salvador at the DIA,” said Andrea Montiel de Shuman, who quit as a digital experience designer in June.

Nor have people of color been hired in numbers that reflect that the museum’s home is a city that is nearly 80% Black.

The staff of 371 is 38% Black; three of its 11 curators are Black; 12 of its 48 board members are African American. Of Salort-Pons’ nine-person senior leadership team, one member is Black.

The museum said it did not have any earlier statistics of staff demographics that might help measure the success of its diversity efforts. But Reginald M. Turner, one of the board members who is Black, said of Salort-Pons: “He has hired a number of persons of color since he has been in the role.”

Bill Harris, a writer and emeritus professor of English at Wayne State University, said he visited the institute as a young boy even though he didn’t feel welcome. “It has evolved from that, but it’s still a white institution,” he said.

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, which has been a generous benefactor, said Salort-Pons can succeed, but only with the board’s support, and that he needs to overhaul the museum to better reflect Detroit. “He can only do this job if he is willing the shake the very foundations of that museum,” he said. “If he does not have the courage to do that, he should not be the director.”

Salort-Pons’ critics say that even in situations where the museum has taken on topical issues, like the exhibition that looked at civil unrest in Detroit during 1967, the approach has been sometimes safe and somewhat muted. The images may have been provocative, but staff members said he pushed back when they wanted language to mention issues like white supremacy or police brutality. Salort-Pons said he does not recollect this.

“There is reluctance to have a deeper conversation about issues that might be controversial,” said Teri John, former executive director of learning and audience engagement. “When you are the premier art institution in the Blackest community in the country, that is probably a problem.”

Melba Joyce Boyd, a professor in American Studies at Wayne State University, said that she respects much of what Salort-Pons has done but because of its location and audience, she said the institute has special responsibilities.

“The DIA should be the No. 1 place for African Americans in the whole country,” she said. “Detroit should be taking a lead on a lot of these issues.”

Salort-Pons defends his efforts by pointing out that he must focus on serving the art interests of voters in three surrounding counties who came to the museum’s rescue in 2012 when they agreed to pay extra taxes to support the institute. Their money now underwrites about two-thirds of the museum’s budget and the counties are a mix of demographics, affluent and working-class, both white and people of color.

The fact that the tax increase was approved by voters again in March is proof he has got things right, Salort-Pons said.

“While we live in the city of Detroit, we serve the region,” he said in an interview. “I am accountable to those counties for the money that they give. We have to come up with programs that are relevant to those communities.”

Salort-Pons is far from alone as a museum director being challenged on racial matters. The death of George Floyd and the protests that followed have led museum staffs around the country to challenge the status quo. But the criticism of his tenure in Detroit has gone well beyond that.

There has been a separate whistleblower complaint from some staff members about the director’s use of the museum to display two paintings owned by his father-in-law. The complaint, filed last month and disputed by Salort-Pons, says exhibiting the works possibly increased their value and he may have broken ethics rules by not recusing himself from the decision to display them.

A broader criticism has been that he has neglected the visitor-centered approach to exhibitions that put Detroit on the map as a leader in museum methodology in the early 2000s. Built on storytelling and feedback from community groups, the approach emphasized “interpretation” and accessibility. Exhibitions used narrative and historical context to connect with visitors.

“We used the fact that works of art — whether it’s an altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini or a pair of moccasins by an unknown Native-American artist — were created to fulfill a human purpose,” said Graham Beal, who was the museum’s director between 1999 and 2015.

Thousands of labels in its 60,000-piece collection were rewritten for a nonexpert audience and limited to 150 words, eliminating jargon.

“We did it to help people find personal connection with works of art, bringing people to the museum and developing a relationship to them,” said Annmarie Erickson, the institute’s former chief operating officer. “That was not an easy task in a big traditional fine arts museum.”

But several of the architects of that effort have left, and critics say its principles are being undermined because Salort-Pons doesn’t understand it or is more inclined to the formal, traditional way of showing art.

One of the practitioners, Montiel de Shuman, complained in a public essay about an exhibit of a Gauguin painting, “Spirit of the Dead Watching,” that shows a young Tahitian girl, 13, lying naked. Although the label referred to colonialism and “racial and sexual power imbalances," she said the exhibit should have carried a warning for schoolchildren and “did not address that the artist sexually abused her.”

For his part, the director insists that because of complexity and expense the visitor centered methodology can’t be applied to everything. But he said he is fully committed to the approach: A new show, “Artemisia Gentileschi and Italian Women Artists Around 1600,” will feature all the techniques of evaluation and interpretation.

“There are ways to measure relevance, and one of the most straightforward is museum attendance, which has been increasing since the passage of the millage in 2012,” Salort-Pons said in recent comments posted on the museum’s website.

Some of that attendance has been built on popular exhibitions like one on baseball cards and another about “Star Wars.” These too were accessible.

But critics dismiss those shows as entertainment, pandering, not education, not a sophisticated approach that seeks to demystify heady and possibly obtuse objects of world-class art so that they can speak more easily to those who visit.

Yao-Fen You, a former curator who is now a senior curator at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, was one of the supporters of the visitor-centered approach until she left in 2018.

“When you care so much about a place, to see it have leadership that does not care for it in the best way, it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s not up to the challenge at all.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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