A champion of Black art and artists reflects on 20 years as Head Curator of African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  

Valerie Mercer (WSUC ’79)

As the first curator of the General Motors Center for African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), Valerie Mercer (she/her/hers) has spent her career organizing innovative and meaningful exhibits that showcase African American and Detroit-based artists. While Detroit may be often overlooked for its arts and culture, the work Mercer is doing at one of the first curatorial departments in a fine arts museum with galleries dedicated to Black artists in the country has a powerful impact. For over 20 years, her focus on celebrating the work of under-appreciated artists has boosted the museum’s profile and connected with the local community. “Being the inaugural Curator and Department Head of the Center for African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts for the past 20 years has been amazing, but certainly not easy,” she reminisces.  

Mercer's passion for art and education has been an enduring hallmark of her career. After receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts from New York University and her Master of Fine Arts from Harvard University, she honed her curation skills at The Studio Museum in Harlem and was adjunct professor for two years at The City College of New York, as well as a visiting lecturer at The Rhode Island School of Design. Her depth of expertise and unique vision characterizes her work at the DIA, as well as her influence in the American art community and the cultural landscape of Detroit.

Below, Valerie looks back on the journey that led her to this landmark in her career and how her experiences at NYU and in NYC contributed to her passion and support for African American art and artists.

What led you to becoming the inaugural head curator of African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts? Tell us about your career path.

While I was growing up in Philadelphia, I was often drawing and painting. After graduating from high school, I enrolled in studio art and color and design classes part time at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art. Years later, I decided to enroll at New York University to concentrate in art history and minor in German. Those years were very special to me. I worked hard to maintain my grades so I could continue to receive scholarship funds to stay in my program. I was independent from my family, so I worked in an office a few hours a week in midtown Manhattan to support myself. It took a lot of stamina and determination, but I was fulfilling my dream.

Prior to moving to Detroit to work at the DIA, I was a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem for 10 years; That museum has specialized in African American art since it opened in 1968. I was delighted to work there to learn about African American art because that area of study is not offered in most art history departments in American colleges or universities. As I matured, I realized that much of my formal education was Eurocentric. I began to feel a self-imposed pressure to learn more about African American history and culture to enrich my sense of identity. Working at the Studio Museum in Harlem helped me to begin to fill that gap in knowledge.

Would you please share your most memorable moment(s) from NYU?

During my time as an undergraduate at NYU, I focused on European art, beginning with the Early Renaissance up until and including Contemporary Art after 1945. I always looked forward to attending my classes and was excited by the lectures presented by various professors, especially Carol Krinsky and Robert Rosenblum, which made me feel transported to another time and culture. I also looked forward to attending my German language classes, which I did for about three years, first thing in the morning. The professors seemed to enjoy what they taught and welcomed sharing it with students. Studying German prepared me well for my courses later in Harvard University’s graduate program for art history, where I specialized in modern German art (which included German Expressionism, Art of the Bauhaus, and New Objectivity Art).

How have you seen African American art evolve, or how patrons interact with it change?

By having five galleries that display the best examples of African American Art, I’ve been able to teach colleagues and visitors about African American art history, the formal innovations and thematic content of the artworks in various media, assist the museum in strengthening its holdings in this area of collecting, and teach many about the African American experience. At the museum, I encounter some resistance to my focus on African American Art and culture, even in a city that’s predominantly Black, but I believe that will change with time and education. During the past twenty years, I’ve seen the museum administration and aspects of its patronage become more supportive of African American Art projects and exhibitions, the staff become more diverse, educational and curatorial programs become more exciting and varied, and an increase in public attendance at African American events and programs. While change has not been easy, it's encouraging.