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“Where There’s A Mill, There’s A Way”

That’s the clever headline on an article by me in tomorrow’s Wall Street JournalI didn’t write the hed; Adrian Ho, an editor at the Journal, did, and I thank him.

It refers, of course, to the situation in the Detroit area. Next Tuesday, voters in the three counties whose residents most use the Detroit Institute of Arts will vote on whether or not to levy a tiny millage tax — $15 per $150,000 worth of property value — to support the museum. If not, director Graham Beal (left) told me, the museum will go into “a death spriral.”

Ordinarily, Beal would be blamed for letting the museum get so close to the brink, but no one I know or talked with about it would do that. Rather, some of his colleagues see his tenure there as rather heroic. Despite a deteriorating city around him and the worst economic conditions in Michigan in more than 50 years, the DIA has been operating in the black and has no debt.

And, as Samuel Sachs II, who preceded Beal as the DIA’s director, noted, “If you visit the museum, you don’t know it’s undergoing tough times. If a museum starts looking shabby, it’s really in trouble.” I didn’t go to Detroit for this story, but last year, when I was there, I would have agreed — the DIA looked splendid. When I told Beal about Sam’s comment last Friday, he complimented his “very stressed” staff. (Sorry, Sam, this was in the WSJ story but got cut.)

Still, as the article says, the DIA is at a point where it needs to ask donors, each year, for gifts to cover more than its operating funds, a model that’s simply not sustainable. I laid out the economics fairly succinctly, but if you would like to see it graphically, take a look at the charts published by the Detroit Free Press. The Free Press published its own narrative of the story, with much more detail, on July 22.

I can honestly say that I can’t think of what else the museum could be doing either, other than asking for public support — which the DIA has chosen to do with a millage tax. Today’s Free Press carried an exclusive poll showing that 69% will vote for the tax — but pollsters interviewed just 237 adults. True, Aug. 7 is a primary, so a small number of people are likely to vote, but still…

The DIA has made a gutsy move, and I just hope it works. It would be a tragedy to see that museum go into decline.

Here’s the link to my piece.

UPDATE: I can’t resist adding this piece on MLive, which in the process of reporting a rally on the millage, tells the tale of two kids who sold lemonade to raise money for the DIA. They took in $22.50 in 45 minutes.



  1. I agree completely about the tragedy of seeing the Detroit Institute close down. I visited it only once, in the ’80’s, and even then it was in dire straits. A friend and I went on a wonderful trip to see the museums in Chicago, Detroit, and Toledo. But even then, the museum in Detroit was only half open, though a curator was extraordinarily nice and took us on quick tour of the closed half (we explained we had come from New York just to see the museum). It is a fabulous collection (Bellini, Poussin, Bruegel et al.), and I’ve often thought of going back to see it properly. I simply don’t understand how such an important collection (in the richest country in the world) can be allowed to shut down. It’s not just Detroit that will be the loser; the whole country will lose. I hope the people in the voting booth realize what treasure they have. But surely whatever the outcome of the vote, the state of Michigan has an enormous obligation to help them out too.

    Anyone who was upset about Berlin should be concerned about Detroit as well.

  2. Dr Beal seems a bit testy of late, wildly accusing DIA millage opponents on Charlie Langton’s talk radio show of “wild accusations” and “willful ignorance.” Not a nice way to run a campaign: shut up, opponents, and believe what we tell you. But you’ll realize, Judith, that the DIA Founders Society themselves practice willful ignorance by not considering any of the various art finance innovations that you’ve pointed to in this very column as ways to activate the financial value in the 60,000+ artworks in Detroit’s art collection. Detroit and the DIA have the potential to create a multi-billion arts endowment that uses artworks to fund the arts and a lot more… and Detroit certainly needs a lot more! So, whose willful ignorance is really costing the taxpayers big time? The DIA Founders, or millage opponents? Remember, in Detroit, the art isn’t just held in trust for the public — the public owns the DIA, lock, stock and barrel.

    • Well, I don’t agree with monetizing the collection. The DIA is sufficiently endowed for acquisitions. What it needs is an endowment for operations. As to Beal’s testiness, I cannot comment because I didn’t see the show you refer to. However, he has never shown any testiness in my presence, and when I spoke with him — early one morning — he already seemed drained. A campaign, while running a big museum, is not easy.

      • Detroit’s vast art collection generates astounding sums in capital appreciation in an up year, yet the City is slashingpolice, fire and EMT spending as well as zeroing out the arts because capital appreciation can’t pay bills unless realized and traditional art finance doesn’t let museums realize capital appreciation. Letting investors and collectors share ownership in the DIA art collection turns that idle capital appreciation that can’t pay bills into active capital appreciation that can pay bills for those investors and collectors when they realize it, and generates capital income from their investments so the museum can pay its bills too. I have to say that seeing harm in an arrangement that activates the cash endowment implicit in the financial value of each museum piece so as to better support its cultural value does seem like willful ignorance to me. But I’ll bite. Where’s the harm?

        • The harm would come from the fact that no accredited museum would lend art to the DIA. Your plan violates museum ethics codes.

          • So the harm is in counterproductive museum ethics codes, rather than in a productive arrangement. Museums should embrace artworks funding the arts, since artworks can fund the arts much more generously than taxpayers and donors.

          • Well, I wouldn’t want to defend museum ethics either. Still, it’s worth noting, a la Zaretsky, that museums choose lending partners based more on their ability to reciprocate than their adherence to museum ethics. Bygones will quickly be bygones when a major museum needs one of the DIA’s incomparable pieces to complete an exhibition, while museums with lesser collections will never have the DIA’s access no matter how scrupulously they manage their motley collections. More broadly, the CIty of Detroit owns the DIA art collection and must, as a city, prioritize its municipal obligations, a la Sugin, over any commitments to the museum community’s ethical pretensions. As always, scientists playing God must test their notions against an obdurate nature; ethicists playing God have no such independent check.

          • This isn’t a matter of “choosing lending partners,” per se. What’s in an exhibition changes based on what’s available. As for forgetting “no matter,” I think the experience of the National Academy Museum, which was a pariah for a couple of years, says otherwise.

          • So in any event, the world’s major art museums probably wouldn’t lock themselves out of the DIA collection for long… a couple years being the blink of an eye in an institutional lifetime, and not that much more in a personal career. And if the DIA, unlike the NAM, manages to raise money while preserving public access to all its artworks on its own walls or those of reciprocating borrowers, they might not lock themselves out at all. In that case, other art museums may want to avail themselves of innovative art finance methods as well, since better funding provides better collections care and more public access to artworks and scholarship. Ethics, after all, should put informed public interest first, not habitual adherence to traditional forms. Sensible adaptation to advancing technologies and methods keeps ethics relevant.

  3. I don’t understand the logic behind the huge reduction in fundraising revenue that is projected in 2013 (Detroit Free Press link). From what I’ve seen from IRS 990 forms and anecdotal evidence, the DIA has a bulked up fundraising staff — I’m not sure how they can justify as many high-paid positions as they have, quite frankly. Given the political climate, it’s unwise to ask the public for money and simultaneously reduce the efforts required by the salaried staff. I love the DIA, and it’s played an important role in my life, but I’m far from sold on this mill.

    • I do not believe you are correct in stating that the DIA is reducing fundraising efforts. Rather, the museum has raised $50 million so far in a 125th anniversary campaign that began in 2010. Most of the funds have had to go to operations, rather than an endowment that would provide funds in the future. Once DIA gets breathing room from the millage, fundraising efforts would be directed toward beefing up that endowment, to create a steady stream of income for operating budgets in the future.

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