Nationwide protests for racial justice are touching all aspects of American life, including at cultural institutions across the country and in Michigan. As part of the weekly series MichMash, MLive’s Cheyna Roth and public radio station WDET’s Jake Neher take a look at how this culture shift is playing out in the state.
Listen to Neher and Roth’s full conversation with WDET’s Ryan Patrick Hooper on the player above.
It didn’t take long for Detroit, home to two of the most high-profile museums in the state, to be dragged into national headlines about how contemporary museums operate, said host of WDET’s Culture Shift, Ryan Patrick Hooper.
Once the state started to open back up following Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s shelter in place order, Hooper said, as many as 70 and counting disgruntled employees from the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit came forward and said director Elysia Borowy-Reeder was creating a toxic workplace. There were accusations of racial micro-aggressions towards Black employees and a revolving door of young, Black curators hired but never lasting very long.
Borowy-Reeder was put on paid leave in July.
Then the Detroit Institute of Arts was forced to take a look at its management and lack of diversity as well, Hooper said.
“Museums are certainly in the crosshairs of the same sort of social movements that we’re seeing,” Hooper said.
“The social movements are kind of creating ripple effects that are landing in our cultural institutions. Because our cultural institutions are reflectively white. You see a lot of white artists on the walls, people are wondering, why isn’t there more diversity, actually, in the executive office.
Hooper said the coronavirus pandemic has also exacerbated some of the debates.
“We have to remember that during COVID-19, the people most affected at museums are sort of below the line workers,” he said. “These are cafeteria workers. These are security guards. There’s a lot of those people that hold up a museum, much more that are working kind of in the lobby of a museum, than are working in the executive office of a museum.”
This is an issue that was already existing, even before mass protests engulfed the nation and a global pandemic took root, Hooper said. But those things caused the dominos to fall and conversations to start about numerous institutions and how they operate.
As a result of these efforts, the Detroit Institute of Art has taken public steps to improve diversity, including hiring a firm to help them with the process. Hooper said he hopes this is a genuine move, not just an effort to deal with a public relations problem.
“I would hope that all of these museums, all of these cultural institutions are taking a look at the artists that they’re able to benefit and gain traction from,” he said. “[There are] a lot of young black artists that they’ll hang on their walls, because African American art is extremely popular right now, but it doesn’t necessarily match who’s actually in the executive room.”
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