Valerie J. Mercer is taking a good look around Detroit. Since September 2001, the first-ever curator of the General Motors Center for African-American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts has been rethinking the museum’s collection and exhibition of African-American art. Before taking the DIA position, Mercer was a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the world-renowned institution that promotes the work of artists of African descent. With her recent installation of two DIA galleries devoted to “Then and Now: A Selection of 19th- and 20th-Century Art by African-American Artists,” it seemed a good time to discuss art and life in the Motor City.
Metro Times: Are black-white cultural relations different in Detroit than they are on the East Coast?
Valerie J. Mercer: People here are very conscious of race, especially a lot of African-Americans. When I first came out for my interview, people were always talking to me about “black and white people.” And I said, “I know there are other people living in this city and who are they?” They said, “Oh, yes, well, Middle-Eastern and Mexican …” And I thought, “OK, it can’t just be a black-white thing.”
Metro Times: When people talk about multiculturalism in Detroit, they usually mean black and white.
Mercer: They really do — that relationship between the two races seems to be paramount in a lot of people’s thinking. And when I talk to African-Americans, they still think that race is a problematic issue here. That doesn’t mean I think everything is just sweet and wonderful on the East Coast, though there are more opportunities there for different races to interact, even if it is only through culture. Detroit, being 82 percent African-American, is clearly not well-integrated with whites.
Metro Times: Do you get a sense that people want to keep it that way, in other areas of life besides housing?
Mercer: I see things in the paper, or even ads, where Detroit talks about itself being multicultural, but I don’t know how you think you can actually be about diversity and live like that. You couldn’t possibly have a true understanding of another group of people if you aren’t living in the same space with them. My apartment building downtown is pretty well integrated, but I hear that such places are somewhat exceptional.
Metro Times: In such a separatist situation, what are your plans for the GM Center?
Mercer: Eventually I hope to collaborate with some of the other curators here on exhibitions. Right now we’re working on what we call “phase two,” the reinstallation of the permanent collection in the fall. But I do strongly feel that my department needs galleries specifically for African-American art. Now, it would probably be within the context of American art, and the curators — in American art, modern art and African-American art — would work together on one team. ...
[H]aving a gallery devoted to African-American art helps with funding and attracting collectors. And for every individual artist who has problems with this kind of focus, there are about 100 who want the opportunity to be shown. At this point, the Detroit community calls for this kind of situation. When I first got here, I intended to keep the African-American works integrated in the larger collection. But I don’t think you could make a blanket statement about how this should work in every museum. You have to be sensitive and aware of the particular community.
Metro Times: Which other U.S. museums have curators of African-American art?
Mercer: The Wadsworth Atheneum [in Hartford, Conn.] has one, but this situation is rare. I know that when [DIA director] Graham [Beale] first came here, he thought right off that was one of the major things that needed to happen. The GM funding was something he could have used in any way he chose. So he had the idea that this community needed something like a center or curatorial department devoted to African-American art.
Metro Times: What was your academic training?
Mercer: I studied modern German art in graduate school, at Harvard. I have a very strong interest in learning about different cultures, so that I don’t really think of them as being distinctly 100 percent different. I see a lot of relationships among them. I just don’t always see things as being so separate.
But I do think of myself very much as a city person. Since I’ve been here, people have asked me, “Would you ever want to live in the suburbs?’ And I’ve said, “No, I don’t think so.” I do like city life. ...
Here in Detroit, I notice that African-Americans think very consciously of being African-American.
There’s a great deal of knowledge needed in Detroit about African-American art. Black and white people here, I feel, have very limited knowledge of African-American art. I’m working on an acquisition plan, where you analyze your own collection and point out the strengths and weaknesses, but particularly you emphasize what you need and all the areas that are missing. There’s so much that’s missing, understandably, since this is still a relatively young initiative here at the museum.
And another thing that I want to do here is bring in artists of Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, because the world is getting smaller. It would enrich our knowledge of the African diaspora. For African-Americans, it’s really important to know just how broad that African strain is, that it’s not just us.
Among Mercer’s immediate projects, in addition to completing her acquisition plan, are summer gallery talks by Detroit painters Allie McGhee and Charles McGhee. Eventually she wants to organize a symposium on the work of Alain Locke, the major theoretician of the Harlem Renaissance.
“Then and Now: A Selection of 19th- and 20th-Century Art by African-American Artists” is at the Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) through fall 2003. Free with museum admission. Call 313-833-7900.George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org