This $1.4 Million “Bird” Makes an African-American Art Collection Soar to New Heights

With his first major contemporary acquisition, the Detroit Institute of Arts’ new director is reinvigorating the museum

"Bird," 1990, David Hammons, painted metal, wire, basketball and feathers. (Detroit Institute of Arts)
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Festooned with feathers and entangled in chicken wire, the basketball dangles perilously in the frame of a white-painted Victorian birdcage and, as you walk around it, projects a sort of stifled frenzy. There’s a feeling of movement in the wired frizziness, yet the ball is trapped in its confounded suspension. These objects—detritus scavenged from the streets of New York City—comprise “Bird,” a 1990 sculpture by David Hammons, a willfully inaccessible African-American artist-provocateur. Both a wicked pastiche and a joyful celebration of its physical material, “Bird” is a work of poetic subversion. “Historically, the African-American community has been given opportunities in sports and music and has excelled in those arenas, but it has also been denied opportunities and is still caged,” observes Salvador Salort-Pons, who last year became director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. As part of a campaign to participate in the city's revitalization and turn this lofty mountain of elite art into a street-level people's museum, he made "Bird" his first major contemporary acquisition.

The DIA plans to exhibit the work this month in its African-American art gallery—the start of a full-court press, if you will, to broaden the appeal of the institute and deepen its commitment to African-American art. At $1.4 million, "Bird" is one of the priciest works of contemporary art purchased by the under-endowed museum in two decades and heralds a new chapter for a cultural gem recently yanked out of city control and transferred to a charitable trust. Though the DIA houses a 600-piece African-American collection—sizable for a museum of its caliber—it’s been criticized lately by local activists for neglecting black artists in a city that’s 80 percent black. “Our goal is to be relevant to all our visitors,” says Salort-Pons. “We want to engage everyone who comes here.” The young, charismatic Spaniard wants to reinvigorate the venerable DIA—whose centerpiece is Diego Rivera's populist "Detroit Industry" murals—by forging a town square around it and other midtown institutions.

"Zero Hour," 2012, Hank Willis Thomas, chromogenic print and plexi with Lumisty film. (Detroit Institute of Arts)
"Caged Brain," 1990, Tyree Guyton, mixed media. (Detroit Institute of Arts)
"Flaming Skeleton #3," 1993, Joyce Scott, glass beads and thread. (Detroit Institute of Arts)
"Officers of Hussars," 2007, Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas. (Detroit Institute of Arts)
"Something You Can Feel," 2008, Mickalene Thomas, rhinestone, acrylic paint, and oil enamel on wood panels. (Detroit Institute of Arts)
"To Die Upon a Kiss," 2011, Fred Wilson, Murano glass. (Detroit Institute of Arts)

With the market for African-American art now so hot it’s practically molten, Salort-Pons is trying to get in on the action before he’s priced out. His wish list includes painter Mark Bradford, painter-sculptor Kerry James Marshall and Harlem Renaissance pioneer Aaron Douglas. Having a Hammons, who made his name selling snowballs in Greenwich Village and bewigging a boulder with hair swept from the floor of a Harlem barber shop, is as essential to a comprehensive African-American collection as a da Vinci or a Rembrandt would be to a European one, says Salort-Pons. The work of the 73-year-old Hammons has metaphoric if not talismanic powers says Lex Braes, a Pratt Institute professor who has long followed the artist’s career. “He’s a visual poet, wild, inventive with great authority in restraint. He reveals what lies beneath the charades of American life and brings dignity to the commonplace.”

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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