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$600-Million Endowment?!? My Q&A with Salort-Pons, Detroit Institute’s New Director—Part I

Part II is here.

In an appointment reminiscent of the Art Institute of Chicago’s elevation to its directorship of Douglas Druick and the Metropolitan Museum’s appointment of Tom Campbell to its top spot, the Detroit Institute of Arts today named an inside candidate with solid art credentials, Salvador Salort-Pons, 45, to become its 11th director, effective Oct. 15. He succeeds Graham Beal—a tough act to follow—who retired on June 30.

Salvador Salort-Pons

Salvador Salort-Pons

Whereas Druick, with a distinguished 26-year career in Chicago before assuming the top post, was well known to me, Salort-Pons wasn’t. He has been at the DIA since 2008—most recently as the museum’s executive director of collection strategies and information, director of European Art and curator of European Paintings.

He oversaw for the DIA an exhibition with an intriguing concept that I saw in 2011 at the Philadelphia Museum (which co-organized it, along with the DIA and the Louvre)—Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus.

Having had an opportunity for a far-ranging phone conversation with Salort-Pons this afternoon, I still can’t say that I know much about his plans and vision for the DIA. Perhaps it’s expecting too much to seek specifics so soon, but I had hoped that someone possessing an insider’s familiarity with the DIA’s situation and its aspirations might have provided more details about where things might go from here.

Understandably, he first wants to hear more from the staff before deciding on new initiatives. The one major change he was willing to be specific about is expanding the museum’s use of technology (to be discussed in Part II).

Below are excerpts from the first part of our conversation. (If you’re wondering about the accent, he’s a native of Madrid.)

ROSENBAUM: I imagine you’re ready to hit the ground running, since you’ve been on the premises for a long time. What are some of your ideas about what most urgently needs to be done at the beginning of your directorship?

SALORT-PONS: My priority right now is to talk to the staff, listen to the different departments and see what are our strengths and weaknesses and how we can do our work better.

ROSENBAUM: What are your own ideas about what those strengths and weaknesses are and what most urgently needs to be addressed?

SALORT-PONS: My sense is that we need to review our business processes, align some of our departments and be more efficient. Another priority will be to hire a contemporary art curator, a position that is vacant. It’s very important for Detroit, with the contemporary art scene that’s going on here.

ROSENBAUM: What specific things regarding the business side do you think need to be addressed?

SALORT-PONS: Understanding how we can be more efficient and more cost-effective. There is also the fact that we’ve been working towards strategic planning. Soon we’ll have a strategic plan and I’d like to review it with the team again. It’s not finalized yet.

ROSENBAUM: In what specific ways do you think you can be more efficient with your resources?

SALORT-PONS: We can do better with our exhibition process. We’ve been analyzing how we can do them in a way that is more flexible and in which departments collaborate better among themselves, with less isolation among them. We have a very complex exhibition process that includes different teams—curatorial and education. There are ways that we can do things more efficiently.

ROSENBAUM: Does that mean consolidating and eliminating some positions?

SALORT-PONS: No, no, no! It means better collaboration. We have to define better what are the goals and responsibilities of the different departments and individuals and make those flexible.

ROSENBAUM: These are generalities. Can you give me a specific, real-life example?

SALORT-PONS: To give you particular examples, we really need to do the research with the different teams. I’m not there yet.

ROSENBAUM: What about fundraising? What’s your past experience with that and what do you think needs to be done?

SALORT-PONS: A long-term plan will be to establish the permanent financial stability of the museum. Right now, we are supported by the tri-county millage.

My experience as a fundraiser has been focused on what I’ve done at the DIA as a curator. It was working with the auxiliary groups: I was leading the group that supports the European paintings collection. Through that group, I was able to raise money for the museum through gifts, programs and events.

ROSENBAUM: How much did you raise?

SALORT-PONS: I don’t really have that number. But I can tell you that when I started in this auxiliary group in 2009, we had 17 members. Now we are around 200. The cash balance when I started to work with this group was $18,000 and now we are close to half a million in the tough economic conditions of Detroit.

ROSENBAUM: How much money do you need to raise for endowment to get this place on a sustainable basis?

SALORT-PONS: We need an endowment of $600-700 million.

ROSENBAUM: Wow! They were saying $400 million back when I was writing about this.

SALORT-PONS: That’s when we started.

ROSENBAUM: What is it right now?

SALORT-PONS: I think the endowment is $125 million, or something like that. [A museum spokesperson later confirmed that the operating endowment is currently $124.2 million.]

ROSENBAUM: Are you a miracle-worker? That’s a huge number to raise!

SALORT-PONS: Well, we have to work hard. We have great support from our patrons. There were different foundations that helped us here in Detroit.

ROSENBAUM: Haven’t you tapped out a lot of donors through their support of the Grand Bargain?

SALORT-PONS: We will continue working with them and we need to look at this locally, in the State of Michigan and probably outside of Michigan, trying to find individuals and corporations, apart from foundations, that have ties with Michigan.

COMING NEXT WEEKPart II: Enhancing the Galleries

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