Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Detroit Institute of Arts Threatened by Bank-imposed Emergency Management

September 25, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Museum's quiet fighter

DIA's Beal vows to protect treasures

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

When Detroit’s bankruptcy first loomed as a mortal threat to the Detroit Institute of Arts last spring, many thought longtime museum director Beal would be justified in quietly tendering his resignation. But those who thought Beal would cut and run don’t know the man.

If the Detroit emergency manager decides to sell DIA treasures to pay city debts, Beal plans on resisting. “I will have to be dismissed before any art is taken,” he said.

The man at the center of the storm is fond of bow ties and cricket, is deaf in one ear, and grew up in a working-class family on the southeast coast of England. Beal, a quiet man who’s been called painfully shy, has spent most of his professional life in the U.S. Despite his seemingly mild demeanor, he came to Detroit from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art bent on revolutionizing the way great art museums speak to their public, putting the average visitor — not the art buff — at the center of concerns.

Those keeping score would say Beal has succeeded — despite this, his umpteenth crisis, since arriving in Detroit in 1999.

Richard Manoogian, DIA board president emeritus, argues that in 14 years Beal accomplished what most museum directors don’t achieve in a lifetime. The founder of Masco Corp. and a major museum donor cites Beal’s “economic, financial and fundraising talents, the creativity to make changes against a lot of negative opinion, the ability to attract people and build a team in a difficult environment, and finally, the passing of the millage, which took a lot of political finesse.”

“Graham’s had so many spikes of success,” said Ron Miller, a former DIA vice president for development now at the Phoenix Art Museum, “but everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong.”

Beal took on an institution reeling from savage cuts in state support and fought hard to stabilize finances and pay for a top-to-bottom renovation without incurring debt. After voters rejected two previous “culture taxes,” Beal succeeded in winning a tri-county millage that would nearly cover the DIA’s annual budget. Then the bankruptcy and talk of selling art erupted.

Nothing was easy when Beal took over the DIA, which was still reeling from Gov. John Engler’s cuts in cultural spending. Funding dropped from $16 million annually in the early 1990s to half that in 1999, forcing the museum to close on Tuesdays and to cut back hours in the remaining five days. So before Beal could reinvent the museum, he had to raise a great deal of money — fast.

“Graham took to heart a problem his predecessors had not,” said Jeffrey Abt, an art professor at Wayne State University and author of “A Museum on the Verge,” a history of the DIA published in 2001. “There wasn’t enough revenue from city or state to keep the museum operating, and he had to ramp up fundraising.”

This the museum director and his board did with a vengeance, raising $330 million from 1999 to 2007. About half went to operating expenses, the rest to the 2007 renovation and reinstallation that Beal maintained was necessary to the DIA’s survival. The museum, he argued, needed to grow its audience by creating a museum where ordinary visitors didn’t feel inadequate. To do this, the DIA reworked its explanatory labels, making them shorter and friendlier, often with stories behind the art instead of academic art history.

Yet those changes generated art world panic about potentially “dumbing-down” one of America’s greatest encyclopedic art museums.

When the Association of Art Museum Directors met at the DIA in 2008, Beal said, “One director of a major museum didn’t come, I think, because he didn’t want to tell me how much he hated it.” London’s Art Newspaper sniffed that the museum had completely “abandoned traditional art history.”

James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum, was skeptical, worrying the DIA might adopt an approach just aimed at the visitor with no art background. The real thing turned out to be multilayered. “They found ways of presenting new opportunities for discovery without leaving the expert visitor unfed,” he said.

“Gutsy” is how Ray Silverman, museums studies professor at the University of Michigan, refers to Beal. “After the DIA reopened,” he said, “he basically had a ticket to go elsewhere if he wanted. But he chose to stay at an institution with a fraught history in a community that’s had radical ups and downs.”

More “downs” came in 2008, when the recession hit Detroit, hard. While the museum director and his staff had already acclimated themselves to cuts in government funding, they were now slammed with cuts in giving from major individual and corporate donors.

Over the years, Beal merged curatorial departments, reworked the administrative structure and, in 2009, laid off 20 percent of his staff, including a number of top personnel. Chief Operating Officer Annmarie Erickson calls those cuts “incredibly painful.”

The layoffs left some former employees bitter, three of whom declined to comment on the record.

“We did things the city perhaps should have done years ago,” Erickson said, “freezing pensions, eliminating holidays and taking out every bit of fat.”

Still, 2012 brought another triumph for Beal. Though taxpayers declined culture taxes years earlier, Beal and his team crisscrossed the region, courting voters, officials and the media to pass a millage in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to provide the DIA with $23 million a year. Those funds nearly cover the museum’s $25 million operating budget and help the DIA focus its fundraising efforts on boosting its endowment in case of future financial difficulties.

The win was one for the public as well: Those who live in the tri-county region now get free admission. Last year about 600,000 people visited, compared to 380,000 in 2001.

But that high was short-lived. Just nine months later, the bankruptcy bombshell landed. Like any city asset, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr announced in May the DIA’s collection would have to be priced for possible sale.

“Ironically, the threat only became real to me when the emergency manager said he didn’t want to sell the art,” Beal said.

“The implication was that he thought he could if he had to.”

Orr’s spokesman Bill Nowling criticized Beal in May, saying the DIA “really messed up” in not including a clause in the millage that would have immunized the art from possible sale.

“They could have included that language in the ballot proposal,” Nowling added. “Somebody missed that.”

“His comments are designed to denigrate,” Beal said, adding that millage success was never a sure thing, particularly in Macomb. Including language sure to make political waves in Detroit would have sunk the whole thing, he said.

If the museum escapes the bankruptcy intact, Beal will likely be remembered as the man who implemented what Kresge Foundation president Rip Rapson called “one of the most ambitious and amazing transformations of an art museum anywhere.”

That’s where Beal hangs his hat, saying “Transforming the DIA into an institution that belongs to the people” is his greatest accomplishment.

“Our success in doing so enabled the passage of a tax — A tax for art! — that, current events aside, has brought a measure of financial stability for the first time in decades.”

From The Detroit News:

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