Published: October 26, 2021
Salvador Salort-Pons has been at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) since 2008, when he joined its ranks in the curatorial department; he was eventually appointed director, president, and chief executive officer in 2015. His tenure in the Motor City followed a curatorial position at the Meadows Museum at SMU in Dallas and another at the Palazzo Ruspoli in Rome, a professorship at the University of Madrid and a research fellowship at the Royal College of Spain in Bologna. When word reached us that the DIA – like many museums in the United States – was actively working to broaden its collections and engagement with communities of color, we reached out for an inside look at how that was taking place.
It’s been a while since the DIA was in financial straits – is the museum on solid footing again?
While the Detroit Institute of Arts has historically struggled financially, the last few years have seen the museum reach a level of financial stability it had never experienced in its 136 year history. We accomplished this through the efficient use of our resources and the support of our community through a small property tax that provides funding for the museum.
This new operating structure has allowed the DIA to focus on building our unrestricted operating endowment (UOE), which has significantly grown from $124 million to $325 million since 2015, the year I was appointed director. Today, the DIA’s endowment is $410 million, a historical record. Our healthy financial position has allowed us to operate the DIA without debt, secure a fully funded pension plan, create emergency reserves and protect the jobs of our staff during the pandemic.
Now that it’s stable, are there areas or categories the museum is working to expand into? What are those?
Now that our finances are on solid footing, we have an opportunity to be proactive about our future for the first time in the museum’s history.
One of our main priorities is focusing on our employees and the internal culture changes we need to make as an organization that operates in an incredibly diverse city and region. We’re putting into place museum-wide actions that will guide our approach toward inclusion, diversity, equity and access (IDEA). This is an area where changes will have a meaningful impact on both our workplace culture and our visitor experience. It will be ongoing work that reflects changing conversations in our society and our industry. Our goal is to engrain IDEA into the museum’s DNA and transform our culture.
In addition, the pandemic accelerated the DIA’s digital transformation, which will put us on par with other leading institutions, by creating the DIA’s first digital division. Our current digital offerings (virtual field trips for students, livestreamed events, online programs for senior centers and more) will be amplified and improved, thanks to new talent and better internal processes.
Detroit has a high percentage of residents who are people of color. Are you trying to engage with that audience? What are you doing and what has the response been?
I’ve lived in many different places throughout the world, and Detroit is an incredibly vibrant city, in constant evolution, and there’s no place else I’d rather be. The DIA strives to be a reflection of our culturally rich communities and we want to continue to create programs, exhibitions and experiences that mirror the powerfully diverse society we serve. We continually seek input from our all our stakeholders and meet with local advisors and artists to ensure our programming meets the needs of those we serve.
Moreover, the DIA has focused on diversifying and expanding its collection, in particular by acquiring artwork by important artists who have been historically underrepresented in museums. We aim to showcase art that inspires, creates conversation, challenges social norms, shares different perspectives and above all, can be appreciated by anyone who engages with our collection.
In fact, we were the first art museum in the United States to have a permanent collection of galleries and a curatorial department devoted to African American art when we opened our Center for African American Art in 2000. To this day, we boast one of the most robust collections of art by African Americans in the world, which includes works by Archibald Motley, Mavis Pusey, Titus Kaphar, Mickalene Thomas, David Hammons, Kehinde Wiley, to name a few. We’ve also added artists with connections to our community, including Allie McGhee, Ayana Jackson, Tylonn Sawyer and Mario Moore.
Can you specify some of the pieces recently acquired under the strategy of expanding the collection with works by African American artists?
When I became director, we strengthened the museum’s commitment to collect works by historically underrepresented artists, especially focusing on expanding our world-class holdings of African American art. Together with Valerie Mercer, who recently celebrated her 20th anniversary as the DIA’s head curator of African American art, we’ve added to the collection more than 80 works through acquisitions and gifts since I became director.
We started this initiative in 2016, with the acquisition of “Bird” by David Hammons. It was the first work by this major contemporary artist to enter the collection and the first time the DIA spent a seven-figure sum on a work by an African American artist. This acquisition showed our commitment to both quality and our support of this area of the collection at the highest possible financial level. Since then, and using all possible sources of art acquisition funding, we have continued adding crucial works by historically relevant Black artists, including “Paris, Café” by Archibald Motley and five pieces – two paintings and three drawings – by Wadsworth Jarrell, including “Three Queens” and “Mother Supreme.”
When we look at new acquisitions, in my opinion, it is important to focus, among other things, on the artist’s contribution to the understanding of our society and history, the aesthetic qualities of the work, and how the created images can inspire our visitors and give them new perspectives about our world. The ideal artwork needs to show quality and relevance to our communities as well as helping the DIA achieve representational equity in our galleries. Valerie, as an accomplished art historian and curator, has such a keen eye and understanding of what resonates and what belongs on the walls of the DIA. She works in collaboration with other departments and finds artwork that strengthens our collection in every possible medium – such as the photography series “The Kitchen Table” by Carrie Mae Weems or the color lithograph by Kerry James Marshall, “Brownie.”
It is also important to mention all the amazing donors and groups that contribute funding or gifts of important pieces of African American art. There are too many to mention, but one great example is the DIA’s Founders Junior Council (FJC). They designated a fund of $250,000 in 2020 for the purchase of African American art by Detroit-based artists for the DIA’s permanent collection over the next several years. Their first purchase was Tylonn Sawyer’s “White on White: Stone Mountain” painting.
What other possible acquisitions or upcoming exhibitions are you most excited about?
We have made a special effort to collect Old Master works by women artists. We recently acquired a painting by Josefa de Ayala (Portuguese, 1630-1684) and sculptures by Luisa Roldán (Spanish, 1652-1706) and Caterina de Julianis (Italian, 1670-1743). These are rare and we had a lot of competition when acquiring them. I am glad we succeeded.
With our new curator of Native American Art, Denene De Quintal, the DIA has dramatically shifted and started to purchase works by contemporary artists in this area. We are growing the collection quickly and Denene was able to secure a monumental piece by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, “I See Red: Herd,” which will hopefully be on display in November. We are also focused on acquiring contemporary Native American works with connections to Michigan that will resonate with school groups visiting the museum on field trips, such as Kelly Church’s “Anishnabe Treaty Hat – Michigan Treaties, Gun Lake Band, Grand Traverse Band descent.”
In terms of exhibitions, we are developing projects with Titus Kaphar and Kehinde Wiley that are still to be announced and hope to schedule very soon. Finally, I am excited about a show, “Dining with the Sultan,” which will connect with the Arab American community in Detroit, the largest in the country.
We’ll also be exploring the vital and often overlooked history of women artists in Italy next year with “By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800.” We will be offering a contemporaneous experience to “By Her Hand, Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections,” which will allow the visitors to make parallel connections to this beloved contemporary Detroit artist and her professional trajectory. In 2023, we will host the first retrospective of British-Ghanaian photographer James Barnor.
You joined the curatorial staff at the museum in 2008 and became head curator of European Paintings and Head of the European Art department in 2011; four years later, you became the museum’s executive director.
During your time there, what changes have you seen at the museum?
In 2015, the DIA became independent from the City of Detroit and now holds its assets in a perpetual charitable trust. This newfound independence and the financial stability provided by the region’s property tax support, known as a “millage,” has been transformational for the DIA. In essence, we rely on an entirely new business model that not only sustained us through the pandemic – but allowed us to prosper at a time when other institutions were forced to lay off staff and faced significant financial deficits.
With this unique business model, we invest back into our community in ways we couldn’t previously. At the DIA, the residents from the three counties that pay the millage enjoy free admission and free customized programs for students and seniors, as well as partnerships with area nonprofit organizations. The DIA has gone from welcoming 24,000 students each year to 90,000 in 2019, all of whom received free admission and free bus transportation.
There are other museums in the United States that benefit from property taxes, but we are the only one that we know of that reinvests the funding back in the community and is required to provide these types of services. We’ve clearly seen the benefits of this partnership and its relevance to our community like few museums in the world.
What directions would you like to see the museum take in the upcoming future?
While we have achieved financial stability, there is still a lot of crucial work that we need to do in this area. I would like to bring our UOE to a level where we can continue to provide our community with free services beyond 2032 when the millage expires. My goal is to increase the UOE to $600/800 million in the next 11 years, and with the generosity of the community and our donors and the relevance of our work to them, I think that’s attainable.
We’re also working on a strategic plan with input from our staff, community, and board to guide us for the next three to five years and help define what the role of our museum should be in society. The last 18 months have been eye-opening, and the traditional roles of museums have been challenged. Like other institutions, we are learning and rethinking our work as a result.
One constant that will remain at the DIA, though, is our commitment to making bold and innovative choices around acquisitions and exhibitions. We were the first museum in the United States to acquire a Van Gogh almost 100 years ago, which we are celebrating with the exhibit “Van Gogh in America” next October.
We’ve had a lot of “firsts” here, and I’m confident that’s a trend that won’t change.
-Madelia Hickman Ring
March 21, 2023
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