Last week, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) acquired “Bird” (1990), a striking sculpture by David Hammons, the MacArthur Genius Grant-winning African American artist known for his witty conceptual reflections on race. “Bird” — the title of which references both the nickname of black jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker and the white basketball star Larry Bird — is composed of found objects: a six-foot-tall white Victorian bird cage stand, with a basketball suspended in a nest of tangled chicken wire in place of an actual cage.
“Getting the Hammons was a huge deal,” Valerie Mercer, DIA’s curator of African American art, told Hyperallergic. The acquisition marks the beginning of the DIA’s new three-year, multimillion-dollar initiative to deepen its commitment to African American art. That means more acquisitions, exhibitions, and commissions of work by African American artists, as well as community partnerships, staff development, and internships. The initiative will be run out of the DIA’s General Motors Center for African American Art, which was founded in 2000.
“We felt, with this museum being in Detroit, which has such a high population of African American people, that we needed to put a greater focus on African American art,” Mercer said. Currently, DIA’s visitors do not reflect the diversity of Detroit: African Americans make up about 22% of Detroit’s metro population, but only 10% of DIA’s everyday visitors. “Museums, we all know, are in many respects very much behind [the times] — they seem too traditional for a lot of our public. We wanted to appeal to a younger generation that’s very concerned about things going on now in American society.”
One of the first exhibitions under the new initiative, in 2017, will be collaborative show with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History commemorating the 50th anniversary of Detroit’s 1967 riot. Mercer has also been discussing the possibility of launching a biennial or triennial for Detroit artists.
A major goal of the initiative is to balance out the relative lack of education about African American art history, both in academia and in the museum world. “In all my years studying art history, none of the schools I went to offered courses in African American art,” Mercer says. As a student, Mercer’s focus was European Modern art, but she went on to specialize in African American art while working for years as a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem. While she believes universities are taking steps to fill these holes in their art history curricula, “some young people still complain about [the lack of African American art courses]. And most museums have maybe 10 pieces by African American artists.” In Mercer’s conversations with DIA director Salvador Salort-Pons, “I said, we could really do something different by acquiring more. We could help people learn the history of African American art. We could offer a service that no other museum offers.”
Though DIA is now going full steam ahead with the initiative, members of the museum’s leadership were initially ambivalent about the idea. “The worry came from the belief that when they would do a show on African American art, the visitor numbers were always much lower than they were for European or Euroamerican art — and some of that was really true,” Mercer said. “They didn’t view them as being successful even though some of the public liked them.”
That changed with last fall’s 30 Americans exhibition, a touring show of contemporary African American art from the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. Attendance was 16% higher than the museum’s original target, and African American visitors totaled 41% of the visitors, suggesting that a greater commitment to African American art could diversify the museum’s audience and strengthen its role as a positive force in the city.
Currently, the DIA’s 600-piece African American art collection nearly matches the breadth and quality of similar collections at the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum, but it’s the only encyclopedic museum in the US with permanent collection galleries devoted to African American art (it has five of them).
In expanding the collection, Mercer has a long desiderata — she’s eyeing works by contemporary artists including Kerry James Marshall, Mark Bradford, and Mickalene Thomas. Also on her wishlist are pieces by 19th-century African American artists Edmonia Lewis, Robert Duncan, and Joshua Johnson; early modernists of the Harlem Renaissance like Aaron Douglas, Archibald Motley, Augusta Savage, and Sargent Johnson; and the work of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists Collective (or AfriCOBRA), founded in Chicago in the 1960s.
“AfriCOBRA had a very Afrocentric view, with work very much about pride. A lot of that work has been ignored by museums — only recently did the Brooklyn Museum buy a collection of their work,” Mercer says. “You wouldn’t have a Kehinde Wiley if it wasn’t for them taking more chances, focusing on the politics of their people’s situation.”