Dryly written, filled with charts and graphs and copiously annotated, A Museum on the Verge: A Socioeconomic History of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1882-2000, by Wayne State University associate professor Jeffrey Abt could be the cure for insomnia. It is also one of the most astute studies on culture in Detroit in years. Although Abt maintains a scrupulous professional objectivity in presenting his research, readers of A Museum on the Verge may not be so inclined. Simply put, the book chronicles a legacy of shortsightedness and hubris in managing the DIA that has persisted for more than a century.
Like a stealth bomber flying cloaked past enemy radar, Abt, with his unassuming manner and tweedy academic pedigree, gained unprecedented access to museum records, which revealed issues that have plagued the DIA since its inception. The guys at the DIA’s helm have consistently steered the museum to suit their ambitions, never to look back at the wreckage in their wake.
At the root of the problem is the Frankenstein’s monster of governance created in 1904, less than two decades after the DIA’s founding in 1885, when trustees of what was then the Detroit Museum of Art deeded the land and museum building over to the City of Detroit. This complied with legal terms for municipal funding of continued operations and future growth. (The museum, a private corporation, had already been feeding at the public trough for more than a decade and by 1887 the city was its only source of operating support.)
As a result, two separate entities shared responsibility for museum management: the Founders Society, a private organization that owned the collection and acquired additional artworks, and the Arts Commission, appointed by and reporting to the mayor, which managed day-to-day operations. This quasimunicipal structure subjected the museum to the vagaries of annual city budget reviews, pitting culture against public education, police and fire protection, waste and water management, and other operations. In later years, all physical assets, including artworks, were ceded to the city, with the Founders Society responsible for acquiring works of art and providing certain support activities. However, disputes continued over jurisdiction, funding and mission.
Over the years, museum management and patrons exacerbated the situation by attempting to expand the DIA’s physical plant and acquire “trophy” works of art. This was done without adequately providing for the infrastructure such growth entails, such as additional guards and curators, to protect and maintain collections and galleries, the responsibility for which had been laid off on the city. During flush times, Abt shows, decisions were made to spend for today rather than to save for tomorrow. This exposed the DIA to serious risk in sustaining operations, which were jeopardized whenever economic or political conditions threatened the flow of public revenues, as during the Great Depression, the 1970s recession and the change in state government in the 1990s.
The political tug of war was also reflected in the failure to increase the DIA’s endowment, those funds set aside to provide a stable source of revenue outside of public support. For decades, the DIA endowment was a fraction of those of similar institutions, in the low tens of millions of dollars, where other funds were 10 and even 20 times that amount and more.
Ironically, DIA trustees have included some of the most lauded names in the history of capitalism — Ford, Hudson, Taubman, etc. But when it came to their fiduciary duties at the museum, they apparently forgot the first lesson of management: Most businesses fail because they lack the necessary capital to ride out economic ups and downs. Recently, the DIA has begun to address the endowment problem, but even though the fundraising effort thus far has greatly exceeded expectations, there is still a long way to go.
Among the driving forces behind the DIA’s wobbly fiscal strategy are the nature of philanthropy and the makeup of the patron group providing support. Artworks, buildings and other tangible assets have an appeal that daily operations do not: It takes the form of shiny engraved brass plates that start with the words “Gift of —.”
By retaining control of acquisitions and other more glamorous activities, the Founders kept the cream for themselves while leaving taxpayers to attend to the details. What’s more, many trustees are collectors, and in some cases own galleries and auction houses, providing opportunity for what in public companies would be considered “insider” trading. Certainy, the conviction of Arts Commissioner A. Alfred Taubman in the Sotheby’s-Christie’s price-fixing case points out the potential for problems. (That “Big Al” was welcomed back with open arms by Detroit’s powers that be is an affront to the public, to whose “knowledge and understanding of art” the DIA is dedicated.)
Recently, the city subcontracted all DIA operations to the Founders Society, now known as “The Detroit Institute of Arts,” signaling a new, perhaps less volatile chapter in the museum’s history. If that seems like awarding the jackpot to the very bozos who got this two-ring circus going in the first place, remember, this is America — them that got, get.
In a related feature, Metro Times arts editor George Tysh accompanies up-and-coming art curator Aaron Timlin on a critical tour of the DIA's modern collection.
Vince Carducci writes about art and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.