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Detroit’s Emergency Manager’s Proposals Spare Detroit Institute’s Art (plus DIA’s work behind scenes)

Graham Beal, director, Detroit Institute of Arts

Graham Beal, director, Detroit Institute of Arts

It’s a hopeful sign, but not a complete reprieve.

This just in from Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press [emphasis added]:

The sale of city-owned art at the Detroit Institute of Arts was not part of the plan presented to creditors Friday morning by the city’s emergency manager Kevyn Orr.

The report makes no mention of monetizing the museum or its art to raise money to pay down the city’s massive debt. But the report does not rule out the possibility that the museum might be asked to contribute revenue as part of the restructuring plan as it evolves.

According to the Free Press’ Twitter-based live coverage of today’s meeting between Orr and creditors, the emergency manager said that the city “will not pay a $39.7 million bill due today to investors on pension lease payments. That means Detroit has officially defaulted on debt….Creditors will get less than 10 cents on dollar for Detroit to be sustainable….[Orr’s] decision to target retiree pensions will trigger legal fight. Unions say public pensions are protected. Attorneys say maybe not.”

The DIA’s director, Graham Beal, has kept a relatively low profile during this unsettled time, appearing to have largely delegated the role of chief spokesperson to his institution’s executive vice president, Annmarie Erickson. One can only imagine how disheartened Beal must feel in now having to defend the very integrity of his institution’s collection, so soon after his victory lap in achieving the tri-county passage of a property levy (millage) to bolster the museum’s finances.

In what are probably his most extensive comments on the current situation, here are excerpts from his most recent Director’s Letter on the museum’s website, which suggests how the museum has been working behind the scenes (with assistance from its recently retained high-powered legal counsel, Richard Levin of Cravath, Swaine & Moore) towards a favorable resolution:

Yes, it was quite a surprise to learn that the City of Detroit’s emergency financial manager (EFM) was going to leave the DIA’s collection, in his parlance “on the table,” as part of the restructuring of the city’s finances. Despite the obvious temptation to jump to thoughts of selling the art, we are a long way from there….

Even as we worked on [the millage], we were trying to work with the Mayor’s office and City Council to recast our operating agreement [my link, not his] with the city [emphasis added] to reflect the changed circumstances of the past decade and a half [during which government funding for the museum essentially disappeared].

That said, we did not for one moment realistically expect the city to divest itself of ownership of the art collection….The DIA now finds itself in an unprecedented situation in uncharted waters, and I assure you that we will spare no effort to secure for future generations the integrity of the incredible collection that is at the core of our social, educational, and cultural value.

Even if the DIA emerges from this scary episode with its collection intact, significant damage has been done to museums everywhere: Every time the idea of selling a museum’s masterpieces to solve financial problems is taken seriously—whether by an emergency manager, a government official or a museum’s own trustees—it can encourage others to adopt that expedient, shortsighted strategy. Collections should never be “on the table.”

As Beal says in his Director’s Letter:

The value of the DIA as an asset of the people of this city and this state lies not in its financial worth but as an irreplaceable cultural and educational resource. If the ultimate goal of the painful process of restructuring is to create a more healthy and attractive Detroit, dismantling the DIA can only work against that end.

an ArtsJournal blog