January 9, 2019; Detroit Free Press
A new CEO has been selected to lead the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, and he enters the scene in the midst of one of those “inflection” moments that requires the best capacities from the best of nonprofit leaders.
The former executive, Juanita Moore, left more than six months ago after a tough 10 years of negotiating close-call budget moments. As Rick Cohen wrote in 2014, the situation stood in stark contrast to the high-profile “all-in” Grand Bargain philanthropic investments made in the Detroit Institute of Art. Cohen wrote a series at the time about the financial conditions of Black museums, featuring the Wright front and center:
At 135,000 sq. ft., the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, located in Detroit, is the largest museum devoted to African-American history and culture in the U.S. The central exhibit of the Wright is the 22,000 sq. ft., 20-gallery exhibit, “And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture,” covering the entirety of black history in North America, from the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean as slaves to the achievement of emancipation and the progress of the Civil Rights era. Truly distinctive for taking on the scope and breadth of race as a factor in US history, the Wright is by most accounts a valued asset not just to Southeastern Michigan, but for everyone who recognizes the importance of understanding how race was and still is a critical factor in our national psyche.
Neil A. Barclay takes the helm of the museum as it not only continues to negotiate its financial situation but now also its relationship to community groups and criticism over the departure of Moore, who is reported to have skillfully built the organization’s reputation, reach and donor base.
[Barclay] faces an uphill battle, as a coalition of community activists and leaders have begun a campaign to change how the Wright operates and to have some say in its programming. That group, the Coalition to Preserve the African Heritage at the CHWMAAH [Wright museum], charges that the museum board no longer serves the larger grassroots community that helped build it and claims that the museum wants to be less Afrocentric. The coalition asked for 10 seats on the board of trustees and to help in the national search for Moore’s replacement. Both requests were denied.
There is also a dispute over the Wright’s hosting of “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” a traveling exhibit that details life at Monticello—Thomas Jefferson’s plantation—“from the perspective of Africans who Jefferson enslaved,” according to blackamericaweb.com. The coalition calls the exhibit a slap in the face and has planned a news conference later this month to say as much and to restate its call for more community input into the future of the museum.
For his part, Barclay, who among other things was the first CEO of the similarly embattled August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh (a story in itself), says he is more than ready to engage with the community, including those with concerns about how it is being run.
“I’m incredibly excited about this new chapter with the Wright,” he says. “The museum is one of the most important cultural institutions in the US, and Detroit is an incredible city undergoing a remarkable transformation. I’m thrilled to be part of the history that is in the making.”
And that attitude of enthusiasm for the task will probably be very important, because as Cohen wrote five years ago, “In the end, unless the museum is large, most of the African-American museums are really community institutions, as much parts of their communities as anything else. In that context, their functions and their survival are rooted not just in how much they are able to generate access to the likes of Kresge and Ford, but what they do for and how they connect with their local communities.”—Ruth McCambridge