'Detroit Collects' helped put DIA into right light

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By Tom Kirvan

The venerable Detroit Institute of Arts, which teetered on the brink of extinction during the Detroit bankruptcy saga that spanned the years of 2013 and 2014, had seemingly found its footing in recent years, buoyed in particular by the overwhelming passage of a renewal millage last March.

But that was then and this – an unflattering recent article in The New York Times titled “Trouble at home for Detroit Museum” – is now, casting a shadow on whether the leadership of the DIA is “doing enough to relate to the predominantly Black city.”

It’s a question that I can’t begin to answer, except to share an experience I enjoyed last fall at the DIA that featured a special exhibit of “Selections of African American Art from Private Collections” in the metro area.

The exhibit was titled “Detroit Collects,” which offered an eye-opening look at some of the finest African American art in the country. For posterity sake, the exhibit then was chronicled in book form, a magnificent 136-page look at those who loaned their artworks for the collection.

Valerie Mercer, curator of African American Art at the DIA, reportedly played the lead role in the book’s publication, profiling the collectors while offering a detailed overview of Detroit as “a center for African American art and creativity.”

Not surprisingly, bringing African American into acceptance and prominence was fraught with “enormous challenges,” Mercer wrote in the book, as “institutional racism prevented most (artists) from acquiring a formal art education, being trained through the apprenticeship system, or exhibiting their work, all of which made it hard to find patrons – a crucial form of support.”

But, despite these barriers, progress continued to be made in bringing the art to light, according to Mercer.

“During the twentieth century, entrenched barriers were gradually challenged in various parts of the United States, nurturing the creative development of African American artists and affording them the training and connections that allowed careers to flourish,” Mercer wrote. “The most significant turning point in Detroit for African American art, artists, and collectors was the establishment of local nonprofit art organizations and galleries.”

Following the Great Depression, “art education was becoming more available at the secondary school level and there were greater opportunities for African American artists to study at the postsecondary level,” Mercer noted. “During the first half of the twentieth century in Detroit, a significant number of local artists began their art training at Cass Technical High School (Cass Tech).

“It is perhaps no surprise then that in this period African American artists began forming their own arts organizations in Detroit, helping to create a strong African American art community that thrives to this day,” she wrote.

The fruits of some of those labors were on display at the DIA exhibit last fall, due in large part to collectors representing a cross section of the area’s legal community.

Among the attorneys who loaned works for the exhibit were: Eugene Gargaro, longtime chair of the DIA board of directors, and his wife Mary Anne; Shirley Kaigler, a partner at Jaffe, and her husband Darnell; Allan Nachman, a lawyer and real estate investor, and his wife Joy; Judge Deborah Ford of the 36th District Court and her husband Jerome Watson, a labor and employment lawyer; Rhonda Welburn, a University of Michigan Law School alumna who is a former board member of the DIA; and David Whitaker, director of the Detroit City Council Legislative Policy Division, and his wife Linda.

As a group, the collectors helped shine a bright light on the African American art community in Detroit, serving to counter a national political narrative bent on sowing seeds of racial division at perhaps our most vulnerable time.




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