New to Detroit: MOCAD Chief Luis Croquer

It was a few summers ago when a museum curator from New York City's El Museo Del Barrio was in town checking out the director's position at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. As he was being shown around the city, he found himself standing in front of a vacant plot of land, void of anything resembling a city block, yet filled with little purple flowers. He pulled out his cell phone, held it up, and snapped a picture. After a few days in Detroit he flew back to the Big Apple, taking the picture as a souvenir. The MOCAD would not be his gig.

One night, shortly after returning home from Detroit, this curator pushed his laptop toward his friend and coworker Luis Croquer. Blazoned across the screen was that picture of the vacant plot and the little purple flowers.

"You'd find Detroit intriguing," the curator told Croquer.

Croquer looked at the photo. He saw the flowers -- not the vacancy.

"It was quite beautiful to me," he says. "I found it all quite beautiful." That little picture helped put Croquer on a path toward Detroit. He took over the MOCAD position Dec. 1.

Under construction

He's sitting in a chilly corner of the MOCAD. Sawdust and debris are in piles, ladders are leaning against walls, and power tools are unplugged and strewn around, as if the workers left them and cut for lunch. "The MOCAD is a bit of a construction zone right now," Croquer says, referring to the museum being in preparation for a new exhibit opening Feb. 13. And it's a fitting spot, here at the MOCAD, in this empty, white-walled corner, to talk about Detroit and potential. "This building is very connected to the city, it's very industrial. It was a (car) dealership at one time and now Detroit's contemporary art museum," he says.

"When I first arrived, that first visit, Zeb Smith, who works here, picked me up from the airport and we drove into the city. I had no expectations. I was open to everything, and the city seemed very open to me," Croquer says. And though he's only been here since December, he has a feeling about Detroit. "The city seems very available in a strange way. It can be yours, you can make Detroit yours very easily, that was one of the first things that impressed me about Detroit."

He says there is enough open space here, unlike like New York, to be creative and to create a community, to communicate with each other, and to think. "You can't always think in New York," he says.

"Detroit is very creative, with a very active community, and there are strong indicators that there is revitalization here," he says. "There have been years of false starts, and I think that Detroiters are sick of hearing about these false starts. They are sick of it. It really is reaching that point, turning that corner, and people are starting to realize that it isn't just government help that is needed, but it's a community effort with all parties included. And in that aspect, coming here is exciting."

Fresh eyes

Croquer has a fresh pair of eyes, in a way, when it comes to the city. He says he doesn't see the Eight Mile border: "It's impossible for me to tell where Detroit ends and the suburbs begin, it just looks like a continuation to me." And he says he's heard people call Detroit the third world: "But I come from the third world and, let me tell you, this is not it."

Croquer's father was a diplomat for El Salvador, he's lived around the globe – Africa, the Middle East, Europe, India, and of course South America. He's seen his fair share of cities, yet when he talks about Detroit there is an eagerness and excitement in his voice and in the movements of his hands. He smiles.

"From the moment I landed I felt really comfortable, with the museum, with the staff, with the board (of trustees for MOCAD), with Detroit, with Michigan," he says. "Never in my life, in this short of time that I've been here, have I felt this comfortable."

Getting the job was a yearlong process for Croquer. MOCAD sent out feelers and brought in interviewees from Kiev to Chicago. Croquer went through several interviews, visiting Detroit numerous times. He says MOCAD wasn't just looking to fill a job; they were looking for someone to also fill a spot within Detroit. They wanted to bring in someone who wanted to be a Detroiter.

"The board wasn't just interviewing me but also selling me on the city, in a way," the 41-year-old says. "They weren't just looking to fill the director's position, but looking for someone to be a part of Detroit, of this community. And that's the intrinsic philosophy of MOCAD and myself, to be part of the social fiber of Detroit."

Croquer came from NYC's El Museum Del Barrio where he oversaw its special projects and worked closely with the director. He has had national and international curatorial experience. He was a Fulbright scholar and studied at the State University of New York at Purchase. He also received a BA in anthropology and communications at Goldsmith's College in London back in the late '80s, which, as he says, was "the cradle of English contemporary art." "I didn't study art there, but it was around me, I was involved and engaged in it, and it greatly influenced me," he says.

"It's always been an ambition of mine to be a director in a great institution, to have the best art and to be a hub of contemporary thought," Croquer says. "And I have that here. Now I want to show what this museum can do. The MOCAD should play a part in proving that Detroit is a vibrant place."

A voice for art, a voice for the city

Croquer says he wants to share contemporary art with Detroit, making contemporary art and culture assessable to all Detroiters.

"I want to bring in an edginess and freshness and have art with a brave attitude," he says. "We will be giving this building a voice. And though my art direction I want to give MOCAD a character people will recognize. I want exhibitions that are interesting but also furious, art that is not afraid of anything. People are coming down here for the Tigers and the Lions, I want to be able to say that we have art and artists here that are more fierce than any tiger or lion."

Croquer is excited for what is in store not only for MOCAD but also for the city of Detroit, having a stake in both, he feels. He is anxious to see, and be a part of, what is next for Motown.

"As I meet people they ask me what I think of Detroit, and I say that I think the city is very beautiful," he says. "They seem very surprised by this. But it's a unique beauty, layered and embedded with history that some people might not be focused on. I think people need to rethink beauty. It's time to rethink beauty, rethink production, rethink what we are, and rethink what Detroit is. I want the MOCAD to be the flagship of Detroit's renewal."

Asked when was the first time he thought he could live in Detroit, Croquer says it was waiting in the airport to go home after his very first visit.

"I phoned my former boss while waiting to fly back to New York after that first visit," he says. "I was talking to him about the job and he said, 'How did it go? Did you like it?' And I said, 'Yeah, I could live here.' I knew right away that this was a place I could call my home."

Terry Parris Jr. writes for Model D. Know someone new to Detroit? Send tips and feedback here.


New MOCAD Director, Luis Croquer

All photos taken at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

All photographs by Detroit Photographer
Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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