My friends Maureen and Roy Roberts have just made a significant investment in our community. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) has named a gallery of contemporary African American Art after Maureen and Roy in honor of their recent substantial gift to the DIA. This is one of the first times a gallery in a major fine arts museum has been named for African Americans. “We have this legacy with our children, to whom we’ve instilled the values of education, working hard and giving back. We are happy to celebrate this milestone with them,” says Roy.
The DIA is the only encyclopedia fine arts museum in the world with a curatorial department devoted to African American Art. The Maureen & Roy S. Roberts gallery is one in a suite that chronicles the development of African American Art, and features works by such prominent artists as Benny Andrews, Elizabeth Catlett, Sam Gilliam, Alvin Loving, Richard Hunt, William T. Williams and Charles McGee, among others.
The curatorial department, named the General Motors Center for African American Art, was established in 2000 and Valerie Mercer, formerly senior curator at the Studio Museum of Harlem, was hired as its department heat in 2001. The DIA also features works by 18th and 19th- century African American artists in the American art wing, as well as African American works interspersed throughout the contemporary art galleries.
For more than 20 years, Maureen’s career focused on nursing and health care. She studied at the former Mercy Central School of Nursing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and became a registered nurse. She subsequently earned a Bachelor of Arts in Education from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids and a Master of Arts in Health Education and Occupational Education from the University of Michigan. She was a supervisor of Health Education and Health Services for the Grand Rapids Public School District, and was a coordinator in the Corneal Transplant Program for the Michigan Eye Bank.
Mrs. Roberts served on the boards of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital and Visiting Nurses Association and was active in the DIA’s Volunteer Information Committee for several years. She was a co-chair for the museum’s annual gala fundraiser, Under the Stars.
Roy, a retired General Motors (GM) group vice president and philanthropist, brought hard work, integrity and service to his distinguished career. He received a business degree from Western Michigan University, and began his career in 1977 at General Motors Diesel Equipment Division as a salaried employee in training – one of the smartest hires GM ever made!
After moving through various positions of greater and greater responsibility, in 1983 Roy was promoted to the significant position of plant manager of the General Motors Tarrytown (New York) Assembly Plant. He made it his business to understand every aspect of building a car – including the myriad elements of successfully managing several thousand employees through leadership, trust and respect. Four years later, Roy was promoted to vice president of GM’s Personnel Administration and Development Staff. After leaving GM in 1988 to become vice president and chief operating officer for Navistar International Corporation, Roy was recruited back to General Motors to major manufacturing positions leading up to his being named Group Vice President with responsibility for GM’s Vehicle Sales, Service and Marketing Group – the highest position held by an African American at GM.
Following his retirement in 2000, Roy became managing director and co-founding member of the successful private-equity investment firm Reliant Equity Investors. He served on the board of directors of the former Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation, and is a board member of Abbott Laboratories and Enova Systems Corp. Leadership, diligence and hard work characterize every aspect of his rise through the ranks of the business world.
Valuing the importance of his own education, Roy served as a trustee of his alma mater, Western Michigan University and is now a trustee emeritus. He served as president of the Boy Scouts of America National Board of Directors. He also was President of the Grand Rapids NAACP and a Board Member of the Morehouse School of Medicine, the United Negro College Fund, Aspen Institute and National Urban League. Roberts was recently named a Detroit Urban League Distinguished Warrior.
In addition to their DIA gift, the Roberts’ philanthropy extends to other cultural and educational organizations as well. They were major contributors to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History when that museum was fighting for its survival, and have given generously over the years to the United Negro College Fund, Western Michigan University, Urban League and the NAACP.
Maureen and Roy are again showing their leadership with this important gift to the DIA – one of the top five encyclopedia art museums in the United States. “Maureen and I have always loved the arts and realize the cultural importance of museums like the DIA, both to our community and for future generations,” said Roy. “You can’t have a world-class city without world-class art.” Maureen and Roy believe that art should be for everyone, everywhere and forever.
While the Roberts gift is generous and substantial, the DIA must continue to raise significant funds to achieve financial stability. Some of you might ask, “Why the DIA?” Throughout their careers, Maureen and Roy have been trailblazers. They have always had the foresight to focus on the big picture, to make connections that help people grow in their careers, personally, and spiritually. They believe that art helps us see into the soul of a culture, and that exposure to art from various world cultures will result in more tolerance and self-awareness – one of the best legacies any of us could leave to our future generations.
The Roberts are leading by example and have been involved with the DIA for many years. Like the Roberts, if we want to keep the DIA as a leading source of pride for our community, we must all do our part. We must demonstrate the strength and conviction to support the institutions that hold our city together – that constitute our source of communal pride.
Damon J. Keith is the senior judge of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.