DIA gallery renamed in honor of African-American philanthropists

In his career as an executive, most of it with General Motors, Roy S. Roberts was a trailblazer, the first African American in an assortment of jobs as he climbed the corporate ladder. When he retired in 2000 as GM group vice president for North American sales, service and marketing, he was the highest ranking black person in the car industry.

Now Roberts and his wife, Maureen, are responsible for another landmark: They are the first African Americans to make a donation of at least $1 million to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The museum has renamed one of its galleries of contemporary African American art for the couple.

"You can't have a world-class city without the arts," said Roberts, 72. "As we try to grow the city, this museum has to be a major part of it."

DIA officials declined to reveal the specific amount of the gift, saying only that it was seven figures. Million-dollar-plus cash gifts from individuals are relatively rare for the DIA; it received 47 such donations from 26 individuals in the past 20 years.

The Roberts gallery is one of the few galleries named for black philanthropists in a major encyclopedic American museum -- perhaps the only one. The Metropolitan Museum in New York and DIA peers in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia have no such galleries.

The Roberts gift comes at a critical time for the DIA, where annual budget gaps of $8 million to $17 million have led to reduced programming, layoffs and an increasingly precarious future. The museum covers its shortfalls through special fund-raising, but such large and systemic holes in the budget are unsustainable in the long run.

The Roberts gift also has a deeper meaning for the DIA, which historically never tapped into the highest level of African-American wealth. The Friends of African and African-American Art has been an active auxiliary group, and the DIA's five permanent galleries devoted to African-American artists, including an expansive suite given to modern and contemporary artists, are unique among mainstream museums.

But a seven-figure gift takes African-American giving at the DIA to a new level, said Nettie Seabrooks, executive adviser to director Graham Beal.

"Roy and Maureen will be examples of what we as African Americans should be doing to support this institution that is very important for our children, grandchildren and future generations."

Earlier this week the Robertses talked about their gift while sitting in the gallery that bears their name. The works on display, from Bob Thompson's "Blue Madonna," an expressionist riff on Old Master paintings, to an abstract steel sculpture by Richard Hunt, show the wide stylistic and expressive range of black artists.

The Robertses, dressed elegantly in designer suits, live in Bloomfield Hills and winter in Scottsdale, Ariz. They are known as patrons of the arts, supporting the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Michigan Opera Theatre and Music Hall, among other groups.

They aren't major art collectors, but they buy what they like. Their relationship with the DIA dates back to the 1980s, but the decision to up their ante came only late last year.

"We had reached a point in our lives when we began to think about legacy," said Roy Roberts, who did most of the talking for the couple. "We have four kids, six grandkids. When they come back 25 years from now, what are they going to see, and what will it say about us?"

When Seabrooks crossed paths with the Robertses at a DIA gala in November and learned what was on their minds, she moved swiftly, working with the museum's development department to put together a gallery-naming proposal within days.

"It's a way for us to teach our grandkids to get the best education possible, work as hard as you possibly can, and when you get a little more than you need to take care of your family, you give back," Roberts said.

Since retiring from GM, Roberts has been co-founder and managing director of a private equity investment firm. Maureen Roberts' career was in nursing and the health care industry.

Intensely proud of their ethnic heritage, the two are conscious of their role in broadening the vision of African-American philanthropy in Detroit. Roberts noted that blacks give generously to lots of causes but often do so through informal means, donating, for example, to churches instead of large civic institutions.

Roberts said he and his wife hope their gift to the DIA will "add legitimacy" among their African American peers to the formal process of philanthropy -- and emphasize that the DIA is a place for audiences of all backgrounds:

"My father told me as a youngster, 'When you go through life, you feel like you're juggling a lot of balls, remember that some of them are crystal and some are rubber.' Crystal balls are your religion, your family and your work. Everything else is rubber. You can drop them and they'll bounce back. This museum is a crystal ball, and this community dare not drop it."

Contact Mark Stryker: 313-222-6459 or mstryker@freepress.com

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