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New DIA director has big plans for the future

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Tuesday, March 8, 2016

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On the wall of Salvador Salort-Pons' spacious office at the Detroit Institute of Arts is "Two Tornadoes," a painting by the late Detroit artist Gilda Snowden, depicting two twisters winding their way through a landscape.

"It's a very dynamic piece, and also a wonderful conversation piece," explains Salort-Pons, who became the DIA's director, president and CEO last October. "When people come to my office they bring issues that I call tornadoes. And I'm OK with that; I already have two tornadoes in my office with this fantastic painting.

"It tells the people who come to see me I can deal with their tornadoes, too."

And Salort-Pons has certainly dealt with his share of storms during his tenure with the DIA, which began in 2008 when he joined the museum as assistant curator of European paintings.

Most challenging, of course, was being part of the DIA's upper management team as the city of Detroit went through its bankruptcy and ideas were floated to sell off museum assets to help raise funds and pay off debts. But Salort-Pons says a love of art and a sense of mission kept he and his colleagues from despairing for the future.

"I think we focused on the task at hand," recalls Salort-Pons, 45, who has also been the head of the DIA's European art department, executive director of Collection Strategies and Information and the Elizabeth Arden and Allan Shelden Curator of European Paintings. "The way you go through those kind of periods is to focus on what you do and trying to give the best service to the public and the visitors and continue to be a great museum.

"We had to do our exhibitions, had to do our programs, make acquisitions, do research, so that's what we did. What was happening outside of the building and in the city was something beyond our control."

Salort-Pons' devotion to art started young while growing up in Madrid, Spain where his parents exposed him to all forms of art. "We didn't have art of remarkable value in the house," he says, "but my father and my mother took me to museums, took me to the opera, took me to the symphony. I was very lucky that I grew up in an artistic environment, but outside of the house."

It was an instant click. "I was very good in the art history class in high school," Salort-Pons says. "Without really studying a lot I got the best grades. I felt that was my vocation, and when I got to university I really felt like a fish in the water.

"I think I am very fortunate because I am amble to understand the language of art. Like when we write and speak and use words as a way to communicate, in art there is a language of painting, of sculpture, of music, and I was able to understand that and understand the message that the artist was conveying in that work."

Salort-Pons received masters degrees in geography and history from the University of Madrid -- where he later worked as an assistant professor -- as well as a doctorate in art history from the University of Bologna. He worked with the Memmo Foundation in Rome before coming to America in 2004 to work as a senior curator at Southern Methodist University's Meadows Museum in Dallas, where he also earned a master's degree in business administration.

"That was a great experience," Salort-Pons says. It was a small museum, 250 paintings. It was a good way to start, but I wanted to work at a larger museum." He got his chance at the DIA, a museum that was facing financial pressures as he came on board, even prior to Detroit's bankruptcy. Nevertheless, he contends, "I did not think I was jumping in on a sinking ship. I thought I was working for an extraordinary institution with an extraordinary collection, and it was an extraordinary opportunity.

"And I felt it was in pretty good shape when I arrived. There was a feeling of optimism in the museum."

Salort-Pons -- who's written two books and many articles and exhibition catalogs -- helped fortify the DIA with exhibitions such as "Fakes, Forgeries and Mysteries" and "Five Spanish Masterpieces," and he was the in-house curator for the popular "Rembrandt and the Faces of Jesus." He also acquired works by Juan Valdes Leal, Alonso Cano and others to bolster the DIA's Spanish art collection.

Sitting in the director's chair, however, has a broader array of responsibilities. "I work with many different aspects of the operation of the museum, and I work with the entire staff," he explains. "The museum now is in a totally new position after the bankruptcy. We really have an opportunity to make history by achieving permanent financial stability."

Recent moves, such as the tri-county tax revenue funding of the DIA, certainly give Salort-Pons and his staff a strong base to build on. But he knows that the key to the DIA's sustained success is bringing people through the doors, which he's made a primary focus of his directorship via both internal programs and outreaches such as the DIA Away truck that takes art from the museum's collection into communities and a Director's Cut series of localized presentations by Salort-Pons in all three counties.

"I really would like this museum to become the town square of our community," explains Salort-Pons, who will be moving from Bloomfield Hills to Detroit's Lafayette Park in April with his wife and two teenaged children. "In Madrid, town squares play a very important part where people to have a drink, see a concert, talk to each other. So I would like the DIA to be that town square place that is accessible and a place that is diverse, where everybody is welcome and can enjoy life and art.

"Essentially what we would like to be is as relevant as possible to the community and become a mirror of the society in which we live. That's what I hope we can achieve in the near future -- and I'm confident we can."

Meet The Man

DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons has three more Director's Cut meetings planned for the metro area in the coming months. They include:

* April 6, 7 p.m. at the Rochester Hills Public Library, 500 Olde Towne Road. Call 248-656-2900 or visit rhpl.org.

* May 20, 1:30 p.m. with the Society of Active Retirees at the Birmingham Temple, 28611 W. Twelve Mile Road, Farmington Hills. Call 248-477-1410 or visit birminghamtemple.com.

* June 9, 7 p.m., at the Italian American Cultural Center, 43843 Romeo Plank Road, Clinton Township. Call 586-228-3030 or visit iacsonline.com.

All sessions are free and open to the public.

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