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.
The attendance for “30 Americans” exceeded the DIA’s original target by 16 percent, with black visitors making up 41% of its audience.
Even with the DIA’s curatorial efforts and focus on African-American art, Mercer says a show like “30 Americans” or “Detroit Collects” — an exhibition dedicated exclusively to African-American art both new and old — remains rare for U.S. art institutions.
To pull the works from a mostly African-American collector base in Detroit — a city historically known for its African-American art and collectors alike, says Mercer — makes it that much more significant.
In a landmark study published earlier this year, a survey of more than 40,000 works of art from 18 major museums in the country — including the DIA — found that 85% of artists featured are white. This lack of diversity is also reflected in the staffing of major museums.
“Fifteen to twenty years ago, black curators simply weren’t invited to the party,” says Mercer. “Today, it really depends on the city and the race relations there,” pointing to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s recent hiring of an African-American woman as the associate curator of contemporary art.
For Mercer’s “Detroit Collects,” she met individually with collectors in their homes to review their works and make her selections based on her gut feeling and eye, she says. She adds, however, that there’s a larger mission inherent in the exhibit.
“I wanted to do something different, which was to highlight the collectors as well as the art,” says Mercer. “I wanted people to realize that collecting African-American art is very doable in hopes of encouraging people about collecting.”
Mercer says many African-Americans she speaks with “don’t know where to start” when it comes to collecting — an issue she traces back to a lack of African-American art history being taught at major educational institutions.
In the “Detroit Collects” catalog, Mercer writes how entrenched barriers stemming from institutional racism in the United States — limited educational opportunities for black artists and their scarcity in the lesson plans of university art programs — have created a pipeline of clubs and outlets founded in Detroit that aim to help the black arts community prosper.
That concept of stewardship of African-American creativity and humanity can be traced back to 19th Century abolitionists — both white and black — who supported black arts as a way to protest slavery in the United States.
Black landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson benefited from such support. He grew up in Monroe and is widely considered by critics to be the first famous African-American artist. His 1856 painting “Flight of the Eagle” is featured in “Detroit Collects,” pulled from the collection of DIA emeritus board member Walter O. Evans and his wife Linda Evans.
“Collectors of African-American art starting out today have advantages not readily available to me when I began” in the 1970s, says Evans, who was quoted and featured in the “Detroit Collects” catalog. “Curators at major museums and gallery owners were largely uninterested in works by African-Americans.”
That ideology of supporting African-American artists is put within a historical context via a timeline that attendees see when walking out of the exhibition. Among those included in the timeline are homegrown institutions like the Pen and Palette Club, which was founded by the Urban League of Detroit in 1925, and included two iconic Detroit artists — Leroy Foster and Charles McGee — as members. There’s also today’s Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, where primarily black artists show two pieces in front of an audience inside a northwest Detroit coney island.
To exhibit a show like “Detroit Collects” in 2019, however, is to examine and celebrate the ecosystem of collectors throughout metro Detroit who valued African-American art before its relatively recent rise in popularity for institutions and collectors.
Harold Braggs founded the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club with antiquarian Henry Harper in 2009. Braggs says he started seriously collecting art with his wife Joann over a decade ago.
“We look for things that we like — that’s why it’s all over the board,” says Harold Braggs of his family’s collection. “It’s not a favorite color or anything like that. It’s artwork that captures our interest — and bargains if you’re lucky enough to find one.”
The Braggs have four pieces in “Detroit Collects,” including work from folk artist Clementine Hunter; painter Herbert Gentry; politically and socially charged painter and collagist Benny Andrews; and groundbreaking abstract expressionist Norman Lewis.
Harold Braggs says it’s an honor to be part of a museum show at the DIA.
“It represents part of the history of African-American artists,” says Braggs. “It’s great for the city to actually see art that’s collected by your neighbors. There’s many thriving art communities here in Detroit.”
With collectors front and center, the exhibition also adds a behind-the-scenes glance at the stewards that cared for the artwork before it arrived on the walls of a museum gallery.
With a roster of mostly male artists, the exhibition spotlights homegrown legends in the city’s art scene like Leroy Foster, Charles McGee, Alvin Loving and Allie McGhee, whose 2010 mixed media on canvas work “Kagoshima” from the collection of Detroit lawyer Rhonda Welburn is the cover of the exhibition’s stunning catalog.
“I’ve always been drawn to creative people,” says Welburn, who has been collecting fine art since the late 1980s with an eye toward abstract art and sculpture.
Along with McGee’s “Kagoshima,” Welburn contributed four other pieces to the show, including two watercolors by American figurative painter Dean Mitchell; an abstract sculpture by prolific Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt; and a small yet stunningly impactful acrylic on tar paper piece by Detroit artist Pervis Hawkins.
Welburn says “Detroit Collects” also plays a vital role in bringing African-American art to a broader audience.
“It’s unique, it is groundbreaking and will hopefully get other museums throughout the United States thinking about doing something similar,” says Welburn. “It’s important for young people and aspiring artists who need to be able to see that their talent can be nurtured and can be something more than a hobby.”
Loaded with photos, quotes and background information on the collectors that effectively turns them into the stars of the show, “Detroit Collects” doubles down on the idea of context as everything.
Mercer has deftly added a layer of conversation to the history of African-American art in Detroit — a move she hopes inspires the DIA’s audience to consider collecting themselves.
“These collectors are in your communities,” says Mercer. “They could be your lawyer, your doctor, your dentist, your neighbor.”
‘Detroit Collects: Selections of African-American Art from Private Collections’
Opens to the public on Tue., runs through March 1
Detroit Institute of Arts
Free with museum admission, which is free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties
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