This past weekend, the Detroit Institute of Arts received pushback after it unveiled a mural at the police department of nearby suburb Sterling Heights. After the museum posted images of the painting on social media last week, artists and activists accused the DIA of being “pro-cop.” The museum said that the mural—an enlarged vinyl version of a 2018 painting—had been created with the “input” of the city’s community.
Titled To Serve and Protect and painted three years ago, the mural was produced by artist Nicole Macdonald for the Sterling Heights Police Department as part of the DIA’s Partners in Public Art program. It features a group of police officers holding hands and bowing their heads before a waving American flag. “It’s a wonderful example of what happens when you combine artistic vision with community input,” DIA director of studio programs, Charles Garling, told the Macomb Daily earlier this month.
The mural became the subject of controversy over the weekend, when the museum posted news of the mural’s unveiling on Twitter and Instagram. The posts were subsequently deleted on Sunday, but a Twitter thread with follow-up comments about the mural was still live at the time of this article’s publication. In one of those follow-up tweets, the museum wrote, “Sterling Heights Police Department officers worked with Detroit based-artist Nicole Macdonald to create a mural that represents officer families, service, honor, and dedication to the city of Sterling Heights.”
Also on Sunday, the museum said on Instagram that it had taken down the prior post “due to the personal nature and tone of some of the comments.” That post was also later deleted.
In a statement to ARTnews, the museum said, “As outlined in the contracts that the museum has with each county that provides funding to the museum for these projects, community partnerships like PiPA must ‘respect and sustain the mission of the local organization and preserve the local character of each program.’ A broad and diverse region supports the DIA with millage funds, providing more than two-thirds of our operating budget. As a consequence, individual communities will have priorities that differ greatly from others.”
The museum continued, “Since 2018, the year this mural was painted, much has transpired in our country and we understand and respect that many members of our community are hurt and angered. To support healing, we will continue investing in partnerships with community-based non-profits in the tri-county region led by and serving the BIPOC community.”
In an email to ARTnews, Macdonald said that the piece was meant to show “the police as instruments of peace, rather than aggressors,” and that she had not been involved with the project since 2018, when she initially created the painting upon which the vinyl version is based. The original version of To Serve and Protect did not contain an American flag. “I feel completely sick about this and feel like I was used,” she said, adding, “This is not my idea of where tax dollars should be spent, I am against this. I will never work for the DIA again.”
Criticism of the museum arrived swiftly on social media. Artist Kevin Beasley was among those who decried the work, writing on Instagram, “No major art museum should be funding, promoting and partnering with police departments to create propaganda that ignores and washes over the abuse of power the police exercise on a daily basis.” On Instagram, DIA Staff Action, a group composed of current and former staff members at the museum that seeks to highlight a “hostile, retaliatory work environment,” accused DIA of being “out of touch,” adding, “Did our taxes fund this pro cop mural?”
As in many other cities across the U.S. in 2020, there was a renewed focus on police brutality in Detroit last year. During a protest in the city held following the police killing of George Floyd, a Detroit officer shot rubber pellets at three photojournalists covering the event. Felony charges were later issued against that officer. In July of last year, protests erupted in the city after Detroit police officers fatally shot 20-year-old Hakim Littleton. No charges were filed against the officers who shot Littleton.
Against the backdrop of protests over racial justice in the city, employees at the DIA began speaking out about the work culture at the museum. Andrea Montiel de Shuman, the museum’s digital experience designer, quit last June and accused the museum of censoring Black voices. In the coming months, the museum’s director, Salvador Salort-Pons, faced allegations that he had created a toxic workplace environment. An investigation found no misconduct on Salort-Pons’s part. In March 2021, a leaked recording of a board meeting revealed that investigators believed Salort-Pons had a “lack of facility with race-related issues.” Two weeks later, several trustees resigned.