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New DIA chief: Museum could be ‘main square of Detroit’

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Salvador Salort-Pons, who becomes the 11th director of the Detroit Institute of Arts on Thursday, first visited the United States as a wide-eyed boy. It made quite an impression.

Salvador Salort-Pons becomes the 11th director of the Detroit Institute of Arts on Thursday. The Madrid, Spain, native has worked at the museum since 2008.

“When you’re 12 years old and go to New York and see Manhattan,” said the 45-year-old Spaniard, speaking Monday in the museum’s Kresge Court, “it’s pretty striking.”

It’s an experience that stayed with him all his life.

Salort-Pons racked up all the credentials for a great career in Europe — doctorate from the Royal College of Spain, winner of the prestigious Rome Prize, and stints at the Medici Archives in Florence and the Memmo Foundation in Rome. But the kid from Madrid had his eyes fixed on this country.

“I wanted to have an American experience,” said Salort-Pons, who came to the DIA in 2008. “In Europe, institutions and society don’t move. They don’t change. America is where there’s an open mind. I wanted that kind of life.”

That ambition first landed the Velázquez scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where from 2004-06 Salort-Pons was senior curator at the Meadows Museum, one of the finest collections of Spanish art in the U.S.

He put the period to good use, and not just by getting significant museum experience. In his spare time he got an MBA, figuring that could only help a museum administrator, and was named a Getty Fellow.

Some might have looked on a museum in Detroit as a mere stepping stone, but not Salort-Pons.

He was a fan from the start, utterly dazzled by the quality of the museum’s collection. He was equally smitten with Detroit, an enthusiasm that’s only grown as the city’s blossomed in recent years.

Indeed, establishing a more intimate connection between Detroit and its premier museum is one of Salort-Pons’ key ambitions. He’s got big plans to engage with Detroit’s burgeoning artist community, and — in part to help with that — has put hiring a contemporary-art curator at the top of his to-do list.

And he’s eager to expand what his predecessor Graham Beal started when he recast Kresge Court as a sort of drop-in, urban living room.

Among his goals for Detroit’s museum is to hire a contemporary art curator.

“My long-term vision for the DIA?” asked Salort-Pons. “I see the museum a bit like European town squares, where people gather on weekends to drink coffee and chat. The DIA I see in the future will be the main square of Detroit and will play that unifying role.”

Friends and relatives are willing to bet he’ll pull that off, given his habit of getting what he sets out to accomplish — whether publishing two books on Velázquez or learning how to make a mean paella.

“He is a good cook,” his brother Antonio — one of four younger siblings — wrote in an email from Madrid, where he heads the Spanish office for the World Food Program. “Please don’t tell him!”

His best friend, Blaine Longsworth — an assistant prosecutor in Washtenaw County — wasn’t surprised his Spanish pal rose to the top of one of North America’s premier encyclopedic museums.

“It’s something he’s worked for,” said Longsworth, who first met Salort-Pons in 1990 when they both did a summer semester at Cambridge University. The two stayed in touch, each visiting the other’s family on numerous occasions.

“Salvador told me many years ago he wanted to be the director of a major museum,” Longsworth said. “When he puts his mind to something, he generally does it.”

The wife of the newly appointed director calls him the most disciplined man she knows. “We’re opposites in that regard,” Alexandra said and laughed.

She noted Salort-Pons, no matter his schedule, makes a point of getting home every day for dinner with her and their 14-year-old daughter, Piper, who’s a student at Cranbrook Kingswood. (Son Tucker, 17, is in boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy.).

An “atypical Spaniard,” as Alexandra describes her husband, “he’s generally asleep by 9 and rises at 5 to meditate and read the news in Europe and Spain.”

He’ll need all the discipline and political savvy he can muster over the next few years.

Steering a great museum is challenge enough. But Salort-Pons is likely to have politicians in the three Metro counties whose taxes support the museum — Wayne, Oakland and Macomb — examining every fiscal decision.

The new director said he’s looking forward to working with the counties, who gave Beal considerable grief over recent executive pay boosts at the museum. Salort-Pons’ salary has yet to be revealed, though DIA board chairman Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. said that once the new director is in place, the museum will discuss his compensation.

“The counties’ voters are investors in this project,” Salort-Pons said of the DIA. “I feel very grateful to them and think programming at the museum should reflect that generosity.”

He intends, he said, to make himself as visible and accessible as he can.

“I’d like to be the face of the DIA — and think my wife will help as well,” Salort-Pons said. “We want to talk to people and tell them what we do for the counties, and explain why this museum is important for them.”

He hasn’t yet met with the county art authorities, but he said that’s being set up now.

Friends say becoming museum director is something Salort-Pons set as a goal.

And should brickbats on occasion fly — inevitable, some would say, in such a position — he insists it won’t throw him.

“If I am under attack,” Salort-Pons said, “I will listen and talk to people who are unhappy with whatever the museum is doing.”

His wife said he’s never sought out the spotlight but has become accustomed to it.

“It’s not something Salvador had to do in Europe,” she said, “but once he came to Detroit it was a fundamental part of his job — working with patrons, lecturing, doing news reports during the bankruptcy. I think he’s really comfortable with it.”

He also appears to be comfortable with change. Not only is he stepping into a high-profile office, he’s also moving his family from Bloomfield Hills to Detroit. Alexandra confirms the couple made an offer two weeks ago on one of the elegant Mies van der Rohe townhouses in Lafayette Park, and it was accepted.