Has the Detroit Institute of Arts lost touch with its home town?
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. “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.” 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. Melba Joyce Boyd, a professor in American Studies at Wayne State University, said that she respects much of what Mr. Salort-Pons has done but because of its location and audience, she said the institute has special responsibilities. “The D.I.A. should be the number one place for African-Americans in the whole country,” she said. “Detroit should be taking a lead on a lot of these issues.”
August 25, 2020