Museum’s role in police mural outside Detroit draws criticism

They unveiled the mural outside Sterling Heights Police Station with fanfare on June 1. The mayor of the city of the suburbs of Detroit cut red ribbon to mark the installation of the artwork, which spanned three years and features police officers tilting their heads and clasping their hands in front of an American flag.

But in the week that followed, the work, which was sponsored by the Detroit Institute of Arts, became a touchstone for controversy as critics denounced it as misplaced and openly pro-police when called out. say the public debate should be about police assault. . Some have called for its removal, and in the wake of the backlash, the artist herself said she no longer felt it was appropriate and felt used by the museum, who paid for the work as part of the an initiative to work with surrounding counties whose taxpayer dollars support its operations.

“I absolutely regret doing the mural,” artist Nicole Macdonald said in an interview. She said it should be removed if it causes anguish for residents of the Detroit area. “The number one priority for the DIA should be to serve the residents of the predominantly black city; instead, it represents those principles of power that are historically racist. “

As museum executives across the country are challenged as to whether their institutions are systematically racist, the Detroit Institute of Arts was recently faced with the question of whether it was doing enough to meet the city’s needs. predominantly black in which it is found or to people of color. on its staff.

The museum countered that it also had to provide programs to three surrounding counties, which came to the museum’s rescue in 2012 when they agreed to pay additional taxes to support the institute. About two-thirds of the museum’s budget is now funded with money from the three counties.

Sterling Heights mural, titled ‘To Serve and Protect’, was created as part of the museum’s program “Partners in public art” initiative, one of the programs it manages to meet a commitment to reinvest part of the tax funds in the communities that pay them.

Sterling Heights Police Chief Dale Dwojakowski said he and his colleagues intended the work – which is in part a memorial to three deceased officers – to represent lofty values ​​such as service, family, unity and inclusion, and show that “the police and the community are one.

“I can’t think of anything more appropriate after what happened in this country last year,” he said. “The mural depicts police officers doing their job to protect the community that loves their police service. “

But when the mural was released to the public by the museum over the weekend, critics said it was inappropriate and argued the museum should focus on addressing issues of police violence, not on the honor of the police. Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe, an artist based in Detroit, said it represented “the painting of a mural on a history of colonization and violence.”

Xaviera Simmons, an artist who has donated artwork to the museum, called her role a “major offense.”

“We are talking about abolishing the police and they are strengthening their relationship with the police,” she said. Simmons said she would turn down future donation requests from the institution until she sees it assess her own history of wealth, whiteness and disenfranchisement.

After the fury, the museum removed a social media post about the mural that was originally designed to draw attention to the work, as well as a later post it used to explain qu ‘he had deleted the original post “for the sake of people who were personally targeted in the comments.

The museum said that public art ideas like the mural came from the communities, not the museum, and that its role was limited to finding an artist and helping to channel contributions from its community partners, in this case the museum. town of Sterling Heights and the police. . He said he invested $ 6,400 in the cost of the mural and the other installation costs were paid for by Sterling Heights.

In a statement addressing the critics, the institute acknowledged that the diverse makeup of Detroit and its surrounding neighborhoods meant that different areas would have different views on the art they wanted, and that the national conversation on racism and police violence had changed since the construction. has been painted.

“A large and diverse region supports the DIA with milling funds, providing over two-thirds of our operating budget,” he said. “As a result, individual communities will have very different priorities from others. “

He added: “Since 2018, the year this mural was painted, a lot has happened in our country and we understand. and respect the fact that many members of our community are hurt and angry. To support healing, we will continue to invest in partnerships with nonprofit community organizations in the tri-county area led by and serving the BIPOC community.

Michael C. Taylor, the mayor of Sterling heights, a city of 130,000 inhabitants, championed the mural as a symbol of good policing.

“The reason we’re focusing on public art, using resources and taxpayer dollars, is because we want to change the conversation,” he said. “This mural is about the police department showing their service to the community.”

Chief Dwojakowski said the artist’s portrayal of some officers of color was intended to show inclusion. Critics said they didn’t think the mural depicted a diverse police force.

Beneath the 20-by-30-foot mural are painted tiles created by Sterling Heights police officers and their families, under the artist’s supervision, in workshops at the museum. (Most of the tiles expressed symbols of peace and love, but one depicts a skull with the “Thin Blue Line” symbol which is used to show support for law enforcement, but some say that he came to signal opposition to the racial justice movement.)

During the installation on June 1, Macdonald spoke alongside a museum official and said the work was about peace and soul-searching. In an interview, she said she regretted including the American flag, which she said could have led some to misinterpret her work as sanctioning police violence.

But critics said the involvement of the museum, which had given its approval to the work, was troubling.

“Responding to the desires of the local Sterling Heights community,” said Kevin Beasley, a famous artist who completed his undergraduate studies in Detroit, “doesn’t mean you no longer have a responsibility to the larger context. “

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