It was an open secret that the most heroic, steadfast and principled art museum director I’ve ever met, the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Graham W.J. Beal, was likely to retire when his contract expired June 30. He will have stayed the often difficult but rewarding course for almost 16 years.
Clearly Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press knew Beal was soon to leave: Like obituary writers who have detailed biographies ready to go at the moment someone expires, Mark had a full appraisal of Beal’s career and a recap of his monumental accomplishments ready to post online at 6:29 a.m. today, seven minutes before the DIA’s farewell-to-Beal press release hit my inbox. (Mark now tells me his post was up just after midnight. The 6:29 a.m. timestamp reflected a subsequent minor change in the text.)
I too had something ready to go—a cherished photo:
Beal personified grace under pressure and unflagging resourcefulness. Having now permanently rescued the DIA from the threat of having its collection sold out from under it, he is leaving his institution well positioned to attract a distinguished new leader who can build upon his successes.
First order of business: growing the museum’s still insufficient endowment. It’s a job made easier by Beal’s signature accomplishment—winning the DIA’s independence from the financially challenged city and, in the process, burnishing the institution’s reputation as a well-run, civic-minded community treasure with a world-class collection.
Speaking of the collection, in his most recent Director’s Letter, Beal bemoans “the paucity of high Impressionist paintings in the DIA’s collection.” Maybe someone should bestow one on the DIA—a parting gift in Beal’s honor.
The press release is silent on Beal’s future plans, but he gave me a hint when we chatted the last time I saw him—at a conference last April in New York (where the above photo was snapped). He then mentioned that he was already engaged in a writing project about painter Augustus John and that he also hoped to write about Richard Caton Woodville Jr.—both Brits, like Beal (born in Stratford-on-Avon, but an American citizen). He indicated it was unlikely he’d want another post in museum administration.
Beal’s comment for the museum’s press release is typically generous in crediting much of his success to contributions of others:
It has certainly been quite a ride with some amazing highs far outweighing the other kind, and I want to thank all those whose talents and passion for the DIA helped bring success in so many different areas: among them artistic, scholarly, pedagogical, political and legal. I have been particularly fortunate to work with such an outstanding Chairman of the Board, Gene Gargaro.
While it is difficult to close this most significant chapter in my professional life, I am delighted that it will end with an exhibition of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s time in Detroit. It has been 10 years since I conceived of the idea for this exhibition and I draw no small pleasure that it will mark my exit as director.
Let’s close with this wistful rendition of “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” by the celebrated (recently retired) opera tenor Ben Heppner—a performance that Graham and I both witnessed at the New York conference. (You’ll see him make a fleeting cameo in my video.) That serenade seemed to me, then and now, a fitting valedictory for this battle-scarred but triumphant museum leader.
In the words of Heppner (slightly altering Sedaka): “Think of all that we have been through. Breaking up is hard to do.”