DETROIT — Can an exhibition be informed by the place it visits? 30 Americans, a survey of works by African American artists in the Rubell Family Collection, which debuted in Miami, and has since visited places including the Milwaukee Art Museum, stands on its own as a remarkable assortment of contemporary voices — but in the context of Detroit and the Detroit Institute of Arts, these voices take on a whole new tenor. Though some have been critical of the collector-driven nature of the show, the Detroit Institute of Arts devoted substantial time and resources to researching the exhibit, in terms of its impact, interpretation, and reception among Detroiters, conducting focus groups with the interest of making the material accessible to museumgoers.
I happened to be a member of one such focus group, and some of the commentary and questions posed by participants regarding their comfort level with racially-charged (or just racially-focused) subject matter offered an eye-opening glimpse into the DIA’s struggle to expand perspectives and conversations in a city that has remained deeply divided along racial lines. Detroit is the city with the largest majority black population in the country, and it is significant to see a recent effort on the part of arts organizations to diversify their programming in a way that reflects these demographics. By the standards of the surrounding Metro Detroit communities, the work shown in 30 Americans is controversial. Kara Walker is a household name in most urban art centers; the DIA acquired one of her pieces in 1996 since 1996, but has never put it on public display. The piece itself is comparatively tame with respect to “Camptown Ladies,” which dominates two entire walls at the heart of 30 Americans.