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Detroit Detritus: Critics of Detroit Institute’s “Grand Bargain” Dig for Dirt (and unearth some)

Graham Beal, director, Detroit Institute of Arts

Graham Beal, director, Detroit Institute of Arts

In an off-base article that purports to report on the objections of “critics” regarding the Detroit Institute of Arts’ handling of executive compensation, Robert Snell of the Detroit News quotes only one such critic—Republican state Rep. Kurt Heise.

The state legislator fumes that “at a time when we are asking for so much from people in Detroit—pensioners, firefighters and police officers—it is outrageous that these individuals are being so grossly compensated.”

It’s outrageous to call director Graham Beal‘s compensation “outrageous,” given the figures cited by Snell (in line with compensation at comparable U.S. art museums), not to mention Beal’s 14 years of distinguished accomplishment in meeting the challenges of maintaining not only the viability but the excellence of one of our nation’s preeminent art museums. Not everyone would have stayed the course as he has. Instead of serving as a mouthpiece for Heise, Snell should have done some independent thinking and checking.

That said, Snell (likely with a little help from the DIA’s “critics”) hit paydirt with the revelation that Beal has an outstanding $155,832 housing-related loan, drawn from museum funds. Detroit is not the only museum I know of that has given housing loans to staffers. But at a very sensitive time for this museum, that loan is not only bad optics; it’s dicey ethics. Museums shouldn’t divert for private use funds that were intended for the public’s benefit.

Responding to my request for more details about this loan and for an explanation as to why it was deemed appropriate, the museum’s spokesperson would only say this:

Our board compensation committee determines Graham’s compensation, and we’ve been instructed not to comment on compensation issues.

What’s most alarming in Snell’s piece is the preposterous kicker near the end:

In exchange for the state aid [up to $350 million over 20 years suggested by Gov. Rick Snyder and two legislative leaders], Heise wants to overhaul the DIA board and give the state more control of the museum’s operations and finances.

He argues the tricounty millage should be eliminated [!?!] and the Governor and the three counties allowed to appoint members to oversee the DIA.

Aside from providing financial support for pensioners, the whole point of the Grand Bargain was to protect the DIA’s collection by removing the museum from government control, not to add a new opportunities for government interference. It’s hard to understand why the state’s contribution to the Grand Bargain would entitle it to exert “more control of the museum’s operations and finances”: None of the money to be contributed by foundations, private donors or the state would go to the museum; it would provide financial support for Detroit’s pensioners.

What’s more, the DIA cannot afford to lose the financial support that the tricounty millage provides, notwithstanding Heise’s astonishing call for the elimination of a revenue stream duly approved by the voters.

All of this goes to prove that (as acknowledged at the Governor’s recent press conference announcing the proposed state support) the needed approval by both houses of the state legislature is far from a done deal.

an ArtsJournal blog