The new “Detroit Collects” exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts gives local collectors of African-American art center stage in a way few museums have done before.
Pulling together 60 pieces of African-American art from 19 private collections, the show opening Tuesday and running through March features paintings, collages, photography and sculptures from a range of artists across generations and mediums, including Nick Cave, Robert S. Duncanson and Hughie Lee Smith — a trio of important artists who spent considerable time working and creating in Detroit.
“Detroit Collects: Selections of African-American Art from Private Collections” sheds light on the city’s storied African-American art scene through artists and collectors alike, but also through a sense of place-making, highlighting the local clubs and institutions that supported black artists when few others would.
“It’s been slow and it’s been painful, but we’re really starting to teach people about African-American art — including educating the people that work here,” says DIA curator Valerie J. Mercer, who led “Detroit Collects” and has spearheaded African-American art initiatives at the museum for 18 years.
Mercer also heads the museum’s General Motors Center for African-American Art — the first curatorial department dedicated to African-American art in the United States.
Within a year of being hired, DIA director Salvador Salort-Pons launched a sweeping initiative in 2016 to acquire more African-American art — an attempt to make the museum more relevant to metro Detroit’s culturally diverse audiences, starting with the City of Detroit’s black majority.
The initiative followed the success of the 2015 traveling exhibition “30 Americans” at the DIA, which pulled together works by African-American artists across generations from the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. The exhibit has now been traveling to museums for a decade, an usual longevity in the world of traveling art exhibitions.