The 128-year-old Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is the cultural heart of the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan. In May 2013, in anticipation of city bankruptcy, state-appointed Emergency Manager (EM) Kevyn Orr announced that the DIA’s collection may be priced for possible sale to recover the $18 billion that Detroit owes its creditors. On July 18, 2013, the city officially filed for bankruptcy.
The museum’s Director Graham Beal, however, has stated that selling off major works of art would cause the DIA to shut down. Also note that the DIA’s 600,000 square foot building is also owned by city of Detroit’s government.
The main question: Will there be a savior of the Detroit Institute of Arts? Will it be the state of Michigan, the three Detroit county governments, the metropolitan Detroit business community, or DIA Director Graham W.J. Beal himself?
Christie’s Auction House
In August 2013, EM Kevyn Orr hired Christie’s Auction House to appraise 3,300 DIA works of art that had been bought directly by Detroit city government, particularly during a city buying spree between 1922 and 1931. These works have been valued at over $2 billion. Christie’s appraisal fee has been reported at $200,000.
Despite hiring Christie’s, Emergency Manager Orr promised that the DIA’s collection would not be sold to help bail Detroit’s city government out of debt. His August 5, 2013, statement: “The city must know the current value of all its assets, including the city-owned collection at the DIA. … There has never been, nor is there now, any plan to sell art. This valuation, as well as the valuation of other city assets, is an integral part of the restructuring process. It is a step the city must take to reach resolutions with its creditors and secure a viable, strong future for Detroit and its residents.”
The most notable works in the appraised collection would include Bruegel’s “The Wedding Dance,” Matisse’s “The Window,” Rembrandt’s “The Visitation,” and Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait.” These were city purchases made between 1922 and 1930, comparatively flush years for Detroit.
In an August press release, Christie’s stated that they would not only appraise the DIA collection, but would “also assist and advise on how to realize value for the City while leaving the art in the City’s ownership.” One such option would be to use the appraised collection’s value as collateral for a loan. Çhristie’s appraisal of the city-purchased pieces in the DIA collection would be completed by fall.
In an August 31, 2013, statement, Detroit Institute of Arts Director Graham Beal said, “We have no intention of breaching the most fundamental tenet of the art museum world: that art in the collection can only be sold to acquire more (and better) art.”
In September, he stated that “I will have to be dismissed before any art is taken.”
In 1999, Graham W. J. Beal came to the Detroit Institute of Arts from a distinguished position at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As DIA Director, he promised to increase museum attendance by promoting art and cultural events to the general public rather than to art buffs. He could relate to the general public, coming from an English working class background. For most directors of the world’s great museums, Beal’s appeal to the masses was a controversial approach
Beal’s 14-year tenure at the Detroit Institute of Arts, however, has mostly been a success story. As he promised, museum attendance numbers had increased substantially by the turn of the 21st century. His other major achievement was in fundraising. In 2012, he convinced the Detroit area county governments of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties to recruit voter support in passing a millage (property tax increase) that would contribute $23 million in annual funds for DIA operations for a ten year period. At the time of the millage, DIA had little to zero financial support from Detroit city government and Michigan state government. On August 7, 2012, the tri-county millage passed.
Unfortunately, nine months after it passed, the city declared bankruptcy and talk began about selling DIA’s art collection. In light of this news, tri-county political leaders threatened to rescind the tax if the bankruptcy resulted in artwork being sold; or the millage taxation money being rerouted in any way from the museum to pay city debt.
The Future of DIA
Behind the scenes, the Detroit Institute of Arts has hired lawyers. And the DIA has received additional moral support from Michigan’s Attorney General Bill Schuette who has stated that “a forced sale of DIA art would be illegal because the museum holds the works in the public trust.”
There has also been a recent show of moral support from the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC), a prestigious group of 300 museum curators from around the world. They changed the venue of their 2014 annual conference from Houston to the Detroit Institute of Arts.
But with the resultant withdrawal of financial support from entities like the tri-county governments, DIA Director Graham Beal’s quest to save the museum has conjured an image of Don Quixote charging at the windmill.