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Endangered Art Museums: An Alarming Trend—PART II UPDATED

[Part I is here.]

Last Thursday, I took note of the “alarming number of art museums [that] are currently in extremis or slowly recovering from near-death experiences,” and I focused on two formerly moribund but now rebounding institutions—the Rose Art Museum and the American Folk Art Museum (whose current show at the South Street Seaport Museum was favorably reviewed the next day by the NY TimesRoberta Smith).

Now let’s analyze the alarming situations at three still stricken museums from across the country—the Midwest, the East, and the West—all of which have been in the news for being in notoriously dire financial and/or managerial distress:

DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS

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Graham W.J. Beal, director, Detroit Institute of Arts

Arguably the best managed but most financially imperiled of the three on this list is the Detroit Institute of Arts, which today will find out whether voters in three Michigan counties will throw it a 10-year lifeline—a fundraising levy called a “millage” that would collect, for the benefit of the DIA, what is essentially a property tax (although the T-word is not used by proponents) equal to one-hundredth of one percent (.0001) of a home’s assessed valuation per year.

A recent poll (of a scant 237 voters) purportedly showed that “69% plan to vote for the millage and 2% are leaning toward voting yes, while 25% plan to vote no and 4% are undecided.” But the strong anti-tax, anti-“elite” sentiments of the millage’s opponents were in full flower in the comments section of the Detroit Free Press article that reported on this optimistic poll.

As the Free Press said in its editorial endorsing the millage, “Losing the Detroit Institute of Arts is not an option.” As artist provocateur Ai Weiwei might say: “Don’t retreat. Retweet!” As CultureGrrl might say, “Don’t pillage the millage!”

The DIA’s director, Graham W.J. Beal, is in the unenviable position of being perhaps the most pitied among respected art museum directors, trying to run one of the country’s preeminent art institutions after its having had the financial rug pulled out from under it by the city and state.

Even the hard-hearted CultureGrrl gave him a pass last year, when it was revealed that the DIA was diverting some income from its acquisitions endowment to operating funds.

Responding candidly to my pointed queries about this, Beal (who has always strongly and vocally opposed monetizing art to fund operations) told me this:

The notion that this [the use of acquisitions endowment income for operations] is a kind of “deaccessioning in advance” [as I had suggested in my query] never occurred to me and I think it’s more than a bit of a stretch. I am not happy about doing this but feel completely comfortable with the decision. We are only doing this because we are trying to stay alive and open to the public.

Chastened, I dismounted from my high horse and decided to leave Beal alone. I hope that voters tomorrow will be similarly sympathetic, overcoming misgivings about a small new tax in the interest of preserving their community’s (and the nation’s) great cultural resource.

Although the DIA has been campaigning vigorously on behalf of a “yes” vote, there is, surprisingly, nothing (as far as I can see) about the millage on the museum’s own website, aside from links to mentions in the press. Given what’s at stake, this seems to me an excess of discretion. Or perhaps regulations prohibit political “lobbying” on a museum’s website, even regarding decisions that will directly and profoundly affect its financial welfare.

[UPDATE: A DIA spokesperson has informed me that her museum “is prohibited from advocating for the millage on the DIA’s website, as
well as in the building or on the grounds.”]

Good rundowns of the DIA situation appeared in the Detroit Free Press on July 22 (by Mark Stryker), here; and in the Wall Street Journal (by Judith Dobrzynski) on Aug. 1, here.

CORCORAN GALLERY

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The panel at last Thursday’s Corcoran community meeting
Left to right: artist Bill Dunlap; director of development communications Mark Swartz; writer/performer Holly Bass; chief curator Philip Brookman

The financially imperiled Corcoran Gallery, Washington, held a panel discussion and contentious community meeting about the museum’s uncertain future on Thursday night (which I attended, via webcast). Mark Swartz, the museum’s director of development communications, moderated the discussion and served as the museum’s spokesperson, standing in for the museum’s leadership.

That was part of the problem: Without a committed, long-haul director to guide the discussion (and, more importantly, to guide the museum), the Corcoran lacks the leadership, management acumen and compelling vision it needs to emerge from its morass. The museum’s lame-duck director, Fred Bollerer, intends to retire later this year. He was in the audience to witness the gripe session, but did not speak. Swartz told the disgruntled crowd that the museum’s historic building is “on the market but we don’t know where that is going to lead.” A decision on relocation, he said, will probably not be reached until the end of this year or the beginning of 2013.

Linda Simmons, the Corcoran’s curator emerita, spoke for many of the attendees in asserting, “You are committing suicide if you leave this building….If you sell this building, I have no confidence that you have a board that would resist the temptation to sell art from the collection [to raise operating cash].” Responding to this, the Corcoran’s chief curator, Philip Brookman, one of the panelists, unequivocally stated:

There is no intention to sell any part of the collection in this process, and this has been ratified by the board of trustees.

A 2009 graduate of the Corcoran College of Art + Design (which will get its own community meeting on Aug. 23) took the roving microphone to decry the administration’s proposed “suburbanization of the Corcoran,” adding that “if you can’t get tourists to walk down 17th Street, how are you going to get them to go to the suburbs to visit the Corcoran?”

One option being considered, if the building is sold, is to relocate “to a purpose-built, technologically advanced facility that is cost-effective to maintain,” according to the Corcoran’s statement regarding future plans. The new site would be in the Washington metropolitan area, possibly in Virginia or Maryland.

The ad hoc Save the Corcoran coalition has posted an online petition opposing the sale of the building. David Montgomery of the Washington Post has published a detailed rundown of the Corcoran’s woes and tentative plans, here.

I’m on the side of those who favor keeping the museum in its distinctive downtown home, while strengthening its cross-fertilization (sharing of programs and people) with the Corcoran’s more financially robust College of Art + Design. But recovery won’t be possible unless the museum downscales its expensive renovation estimates for its current building and updates its mission and programs to give it a compelling identity in a city that is chock full of free, world-class museums—the National Gallery of Art and the constituents of the Smithsonian Institution. In this regard, I believe that the recommendations (scroll to bottom) of the Corcoran’s former director, David Levy, merit serious consideration.

Alliances with other institutions, such as the Hirshhorn Museum and/or Smithsonian American Art Museum, should also be explored. The deep-pocketed Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges of American Art, which has been forging relationships with other art-rich institutions, is frequently mentioned as an potentially attractive partner.

LOS ANGELES MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

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Charles Young, the bluntly outspoken former interim CEO of LA MOCA

You have all, by now, undoubtedly read about the incendiary e-mail from Charles Young, LA MOCA’s former interim CEO (after the departure of Jeremy Strick), who called for the removal of the museum’s widely criticized director, Jeffrey Deitch.

Yesterday, the LA TimesReed Johnson lent a sympathetic ear, for a second time, to Deitch, once again confirming (in case anyone had any doubt) that the dealer-turned-director has no plans to change his controversial ways, even though he now recognizes (in his own words) that he is “embattled.” His comment at the end of Reed’s article shows he believes he can put this turmoil behind him if he just toughs it out:

I’m very eager to get beyond that and talk about our exhibitions and programs,” he said. “My goal is to just really get back to our business and not prolong this.”

Young’s explosive missive, addressed to the museum’s life trustee, Eli Broad, was leaked to the LA Times. Desperate times called for desperate measures: Someone (perhaps even Young himself) must have believed that the only way to shock Broad out of his Deitch delirium was to publicize the UCLA chancellor emeritus’ unsparingly blunt e-mail. If anyone has (or had) Broad’s respect, it was Young, whom Eli had handpicked to set the financially buffeted museum on an even keel.

Young essentially gave Broad a Ditch Deitch directive—something that even the ad hoc action group, MOCA Mobilization, has refrained from demanding in its online petition.

As reported by the LA TimesJori Finkel, here is an excerpt from Young’s wake-up call to Broad:

“I hope that the four-alarm fire now enveloping MOCA has at least given you pause for thought about his appointment and your continued attempts to try to save him for a job for which many believe he is unqualified,” Young wrote to Broad. “The resignation of dedicated, long-term trustees, and especially four highly respected artists of international acclaim should bother you, David [Johnson], Maria [Bell] and the other continuing members of the Board. The question is ‘What is now to be done?'”

“I will do anything I can to try to right the MOCA ship, but nothing will work, in my mind, without a new Captain/Director.

We can only hope that Young can convince the self-styled Unreasonable Eli
that his continued loyalty to Deitch has escalated from “unreasonable” to
“irrational.” Or maybe this former accountant-turned-billionaire has done some
number-crunching of his own and determined that the already financially challenged MOCA cannot afford to pay severance for both Deitch and departed chief curator Paul Schimmel, while adding a new director’s salary to its financial burdens.

I’m reluctantly starting to believe that the idea of an alliance between MOCA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, proposed by LACMA director Michael Govan during MOCA’s last crisis, might be worth reviving.

A better option, though, would be to recruit a resourceful, experienced director with contemporary-art creds to assume the role of LA MOCA’s turnaround king (or queen). I can think of one promising prospect, who also has strong LA connections, but I’ll leave these ruminations to the headhunters.

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