Black Detroit author and activist rises to defend DIA's Salvador Salort-Pons

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Embattled Detroit Institute of Arts Director Salvador Salort-Pons was thrown a lifeline of sorts last week when Detroit author, historian and activist Marsha Music posted a vigorous and appreciative defense of his outreach to the Black community on Facebook.

Music, who's African-American and also known as Marsha Philpot, wrote a lengthy essay on the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club page detailing the "unprecedented" steps Salort-Pons has taken since becoming director in 2015 to reach out to ordinary Detroiters, Black artists and the community in general.

Her defense stands out in an environment where numerous white museum directors have come under attack for racial insensitivity and neglect, from the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to New York's Guggenheim Museum to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.

But few have won support from prominent members of the Black community.

Music, a 2012 Kresge Literary Arts Fellow who was asked by Salort-Pons a couple years ago to act as an unpaid advisor on Black History Month events and other activities, noted at the top of her essay that some news outlets have suggested that the DIA "failed in its engagement with the community. I stand in opposition to that view."

Detroit author Marsha Music wrote a vigorous defense of DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons' outreach to the Black community on Facebook Tuesday.

She called Salort-Pons' efforts to learn and connect "remarkable -- you never saw this before at the DIA."

The posting came in response to charges leveled by a group called DIA Staff Action, but her words were never intended to rebuke their claims. Music readily admits she has no basis for judging whether Salort-Pons created a "hostile work environment" that often slighted Black and Latino staffers, as the group alleges.

She was spurred to write, she said, "because of the inferences or outright statements by some in the press that the DIA had failed or was failing in its relations with the Black community. I wanted to dispel that."

Asked for their reaction, DIA Staff Action wrote The Detroit News, "There are members of our community who support Salvador Salort-Pons. We do not discredit their experiences or opinions, nor do we deny some progress has been made at the Detroit Institute of Arts. However, there are conflicting narratives and experiences."

Indeed, Music is not alone in her opinion.

Cledie Collins Taylor, a longtime figure in the Detroit art community and director of Arts Extended Gallery, minces no words when speaking about Salort-Pons.

"His outreach into the Black community is unprecedented," she said. "Having come from abroad (Salort-Pons is Spanish), he was so ready to receive and know the Black community."

Taylor's met the director any number of times, and has always found him to be gracious, interested and respectful. "I have never," Taylor added, "been treated that way. And at 94," she added," I’ve gone through a lot of museum directors."

The allegation of racial and cultural insensitivity is just one of two crises confronting Salort-Pons. Employees still at the museum have charged conflict-of-interest violations in the loan of an El Greco painting owned by his father-in-law, Alan M. May, without following the museum's own written procedures.

Salort-Pons and DIA board Chairman Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. deny the allegations.

For her part, Music admits she hesitated before sticking her neck out.

"I thought, 'Do I want to get in the middle of this hot mess?' But when you see people go out of their way to do the right thing," she said, "and right certain kinds of wrongs -- I just felt a responsibility to speak up based on what I personally know."

Music was deeply moved by the 2019 DIA panel, "Trailblazers: Detroit Women of Art," which honored Black art-community elders Taylor, Shirley Woodson and Dell Pryor.

"The standing-room only crowd for this event, held in Kresge Court," she wrote on Facebook, "became a de facto arts Town Hall. Looking at the overwhelmingly African American crowd, folks of various stations, I again wondered, 'How long is Salvador going to get away with this?'

"For I had no doubt," she added, "that within the infrastructure of the DIA, there was an impulse of deep displeasure with such an influx of Detroit into the Museum’s hallowed halls."

She cited events she thinks would have scandalized previous administrations -- a 2017 celebration of Black hair, "Detroit Institute of Awesome: Art Demo: Hair Sculpting," and January's dance party, "Steppin' into Black History Month: A Chicago Style Stepper's Set."

Music, whose most-recent book was "The Detroitist," also points to the museum's collaboration with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to memorialize the 1967 uprising, and the DIA exhibition that followed, "Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement."

However, nothing has been as astonishing, Music wrote, "as the Museum's connection with the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club," which pre-COVID-19, met every Monday at Noni's Sherwood Grille on Livernois.

If you're not familiar with the Breakfast Club, which now meets at 5 p.m. due to overflow crowds, you're missing a real Detroit institution.

The Breakfast Club, Music noted, spans the entire spectrum of Detroiters, from art cognoscenti to rappers to individuals who just paint for fun in their basement -- what she calls "quintessential Detroit."

Salort-Pons and his wife, Alex May, she says, attended repeatedly, which surprised everybody.

"Some of those who come to the Breakfast Club are economically and socially challenged," Music said. "And then here comes Salvador. And his wife sits right down and starts helping tear off tickets for our raffle and just having a good old time. That was just remarkable."

Club co-founder Henry Harper said when Salort-Pons and his wife walked in, "It blew me away. We were all absolutely blown away. Never in the 100-plus years of the DIA has there ever been a director who came into the ‘hood. Never."

Comments posted beneath Music's Facebook column were mostly supportive, and critics were surprisingly respectful -- including Detroit artist, curator and founder of the Afrofuture Strategies Institute, Ingrid LaFleur.

LaFleur conceded the new outreach to the community, but argued that can't under any circumstances erase alleged maltreatment of staff. Of all people, she said, Detroiters ought to be be concerned about labor issues.

Reached in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she's been under COVID-19 lockdown since March, LaFleur wondered if the difference of opinion over Salort-Pons' actions within and without the museum might reflect a generational divide in what each regards as reasonable expectations.

"I just think it comes down to what justice looks like for my generation, and how that can be achieved," said LaFleur, who's 42. At the same time, she said the director's interest in the Black community "has been something very new."

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