Salvador Salort-Pons on Building a Stronger Collection for the DIA

The museum’s director talks the latest ‘Out of the Crate’ exhibit, authenticating work, and artists with limitless creativity
Salvador Salort-Pons
Salvador Salort-Pons photograph courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts

In the latest run of Out of the Crate: New Gifts and Purchases — the Detroit Institute of Arts’ reoccurring exhibition that features pieces that are new to the museum — visitors can expect to see everything from a drawing created using thread to a painting that plays with both shiny and matte textures. The exhibit, which runs from June 8-Sept.15, offers an impressive curation of work that aligns with the museum’s larger mission of showcasing a range of mediums, subjects, and artist backgrounds. Here, Salvador Salort-Pons, the director of the DIA, shares behind-the-scenes details about the acquisition process as well as what to expect from the new installment of Out of the Crate.

Hour Detroit: Can you describe the research process that goes into identifying what new pieces you want to bring to the museum?

Salvador Salort-Pons: Our team of curators scouts art auctions, explores art fairs, and is also in touch with art dealers locally, nationally, and internationally. They are always looking for works that will strengthen our collection and that will be relevant to our communities. A lot of art historical and market research goes into this effort. The museum already has an extraordinary collection, and we need to continue building on the art quality that we own at the best price possible.

How do you ensure that each piece is authentic? 

Artworks under consideration for acquisition are typically sent to the Conservation Department for thorough examination to assess their condition before the DIA decides to buy them. A conservator, imaging specialist, and research scientist work together with the curator, using many tools and techniques including high-tech imaging [like] X-radiography, infrared reflectography, and UVA illumination, and non-destructive analytical techniques, [such as] X-ray fluorescence and fiber optics reflectance spectroscopy, to analyze the surface and construction of each piece. This information is used to determine what portion of the work is original — “authentic” — versus restored or added later. DIA curators also produce reports on the art historical significance and provenance (history of ownership) of each piece. This curatorial and conservation information is essential to informing the DIA’s decision to accept or reject potential acquisitions.

What would visitors at the museum be most surprised to learn about the acquisition process?

I think our visitors would be surprised by how thorough the acquisition process is. We make sure that the art is authentic, that it has the appropriate provenance, that it is in good condition, and is at the art quality level to be shown in the galleries. A number of departments are involved representing a true team effort where a variety of expertise and talents come together to buy the best. Our visitors may also be curious to know that we only acquire art objects with endowment funds restricted for art acquisitions that were created many decades ago by very generous donors. Generally, we introduce new pieces to the museum every six months through the Out of the Crate exhibition that includes new acquisitions, and afterward, some of the objects are installed in the permanent galleries.

Salvador Salort-Pons
American artist Archibald Motley painted “Café Paris” in 1929. // Image courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts

What themes and mediums were you drawn to when curating the upcoming Out of the Crate exhibit? 

We are acquiring art objects that are of great quality, are of relevance to our communities, and bring more representational equity to the collections. We are setting priorities to buy works by artist of color and by women artists of all periods. A couple of examples in this show are [works by artists] Luisa Roldan (1652-1706) and Julie Buffalohead (born 1972). We are very interested in acquiring works in all kinds of media: paper, canvas, stone, wood, mixed media. This helps us understand how the power of creativity is limitless and can be translated effectively and beautifully through any kind of media. The materials are there to be transformed into human expression, touching upon emotions, thoughts, and the evolving qualities and aspects of the life we experience internally and externally.

Can you share why pieces like “Café Paris,” “Arrival,” and “348 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011” are standout works in the new exhibit? 

[Archibald] Motley painted “Café Paris” while he was living in Paris. While in France, he painted very few works, and we were lucky to acquire one of them directly from the family. For many years, acquiring his work was a priority for the DIA in order to continue elevating our African American collection, which is one of the best in the world! “Arrival” is a very generous gift from the Berman family in Detroit. In this work, [Philip] Guston’s painterly strokes are wide, elongated, and fluid. The artist is inviting us to explore the qualities of the paint and its ability to convey emotions and thoughts. Do Hu Suh shows remarkable creativity in “348 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011”. It is a drawing on paper executed not with pencil, pen, or any ink, but with fabric threads. The image represents the apartment in which Do Ho Suh lived in New York City, illustrating the idea of home — something that we long for, changes over time, and stays with us all our lives. As an immigrant who has lived in many homes, this work speaks to me on a personal note

How do you ensure that the new pieces fit seamlessly into the rest of the museum’s collection? 

Our team of curators, interpreters, and collection management do a terrific job installing the works and presenting them in ways that create experiences that help each visitor find personal meaning in art — individually and with each other. One of the great competitive advantages that the DIA has in relation to other museums is that our visitors don’t need to know anything about art to have a meaningful and memorable experience when they visit our galleries.

From The Archive: An Hour With…Salvador Salort-Pons