An Hour With... Salvador Salort-Pons
Director, President, and CEO of the DIA
In Spanish, the name Salvador means “savior,” and although it may sound a bit dramatic, many associated with the museum see the Madrid-born director as such. Salort-Pons, 45, was hired by the DIA in 2008 as curator of European paintings and more recently served as chief of the European art department and director of collection strategies and information. He makes his home with wife Alexandra and daughter Piper, who attends Cranbrook. Son Tucker boards at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Exuding optimism, Salort-Pons was barely a month into his new top job when we sat down with him in mid-November in his office, under the 1901 painting Interior with a Lady, by Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi.
Hour Detroit: You’ve said you planned to move from Bloomfield Hills to Detroit. How’s the house search going?
Salvador Salort-Pons: It’s mission accomplished. We bought a Mies van der Rohe home in Lafayette Park and hope to move in April.
And how is your search going to fill the job for a contemporary art curator, and what are you looking for in that candidate?
It’s moving along. We have a couple of headhunters. I would like someone who will engage with the community and can detect those emerging artists who will be important in the future, but whose works are not that expensive now. We have an endowment for acquisitions, which is very nice, but we don’t have the ability to buy multimillion-dollar paintings.
Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Sam Wagstaff did just that as contemporary art curator, buying several pieces by Cass Corridor artists.
That’s right. That’s the idea. We also want someone in touch with the city of Detroit and the surrounding counties. Detroit has a very interesting contemporary arts scene, and I’d like this person to have ideas on how to relate to that.
Let’s talk about money. The DIA’s endowment is about $125 million. You want to boost the endowment to how much?
Our goal is $400 million. But when you look at other museums of our size, then you realize that the DIA really should have an endowment of $500 to $600 million.
But how do you appeal to corporations and individuals who have already contributed boatloads of money while the Grand Bargain was being hammered out?
What is important is that this museum becomes a relevant place for the community. That it is a welcoming place for everybody, a diverse institution that appeals to all communities. So that when our communities come here, they feel they are represented. Therefore, if we can become the mirror of our society we serve, we are relevant, and I think the funds will come in.
William Valentiner, the first truly great leader of the DIA, forged relationships with wealthy people who were also art collectors and left art to the museum: Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Robert Tannahill, the Kanzlers, and others. Is that something you see yourself doing, getting more involved with individuals?
Absolutely. That is the American model. I would like to engage as many patrons as possible, people who love the arts or who are collectors themselves. I think the DIA has a place for them.
Even though the museum has more than 60,000 pieces, there are a few gaps in the collection. What are they?
I think the collection is really strong: Italian, French, Dutch, but I think we have the possibility to strengthen our Spanish collection. If there is an area that I would like to see growing, it’s the Spanish section, paintings and drawings from the 16th to the 21st centuries.
Unlike Europe, there is a feeling here that people should not be taxed to support a museum. There are people who still complain about the millage (which ends in 2022). How do you appeal to them to overcome that bitterness?
I don’t think they are bitter against the DIA; I think they are bitter against taxes. I understand that, but we have to maintain the things we have. The three counties, and the whole of Michigan, are very lucky to have a museum of this caliber. And we have to make sure that this museum is handed over to the next generation so they can enjoy it.
What are the benefits of not being under the city’s control any more and being an independent charitable trust?
We now have control of our destiny, and I think this status makes it more appealing to donors and patrons because of being a nonprofit trust. I think people will feel more comfortable in giving and supporting an institution that, because it’s a trust, it will last. It will not be sold or cannot be dissolved.
You’ve written two books on the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). What is it about him that has captivated you?
What I like about Velázquez is that he is able to express so many things — those that are visual and those that are not visual — with very little means. With so few brushstrokes he says so much. He’s visual and he’s spiritual — and I like that.
The Detroit Institute of Arts hires Salvador Salort-Pons as curator of European paintings. He later becomes chief of the European art department and director of collection strategies and information.
Tri-county voters (Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb) agree to a millage tax earmarked for the DIA. Residents receive free general admission to the museum.
Number of tri-county residents who visit the museum at no cost in 2014.
As part of the Detroit bankruptcy Grand Bargain, the DIA becomes an independent, nonprofit museum. It had been under the city’s ownership for 95 years.
After serving as the DIA’s director, president, and CEO for nearly 16 years, Graham Beal retires.
The DIA selects Salort-Pons to succeed Beal.
Amount that Salort-Pons wants to establish as the DIA’s endowment.
Year the tri-county millage to support the DIA ends.
Number of books Salort-Pons has written about his fellow countryman, Spanish painter Diego Velázquez.