When the extent of Detroit's financial woes were fully revealed in 2013 with the appointment of Kevyn Orr as the city's emergency manager, Orr and other officials initiated desperate measures to save the city from complete financial ruin.
Just two months after his appointment, Orr floated a controversial idea: Sell master works from the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to pay off the city's debts. This was possible, Orr said, because the museum and its holdings were owned by the city; its works, then, were assets that could be liquidated in the event of an emergency.
In August 2013, Orr announced that the renowned auction house, Christie's, would be conducting an appraisal of DIA's collection, among them paintings by Bruegel, Picasso, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. The collection also included Mexican artist Diego Rivera's epic mural, “Detroit Industry” – a 27-panel fresco that the museum describes as “the finest example of Mexican mural art in the United States.”
After completing its review of a portion of the museum's collection – about 3,000 of more than 60,000 works – Christie's concluded that its value ranged from $452 million to $886 million. The sum would help slash the city's debt and stave off creditors, and certainly, the museum would have no trouble finding buyers, but critics around the country took aim at the plan.
Tension built up as Orr and the city locked horns with the DIA and art lovers around the world. But, explains DIA director Graham W.J. Beal, much about the conflict was misunderstood and poorly reported.
So it seems curious timing, to say the least, that the DIA has a large exhibit, “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” set to open on March 15 and runs through July 12. Included in the exhibit are the "Detroit Industry" fresco, preparatory sketches by Rivera for the mural and 23 of Kahlo's works.
The artists are also the subject of an opera, “Frida,” which will be staged at the Michigan Opera Theatre on March 7.
In advance of the show, Beal, who will retire in June after a 16-year tenure, spoke with Fox News Latino about the financial wrangling, the current state of the DIA and Rivera's masterworks.
FNL: Could you walk us through a timeline of the DIA's financial troubles?
Beal: The financial problems endured by the DIA go back decades to the 1919 decision that the private Detroit Museum of Art would transfer all its assets to the city and become, in effect, a city department. What seemed like a good idea in the 1920s was clearly disadvantageous in the 1930s when the DIA lost much of its funding because of the Depression.
Although the DIA recovered in the '50s and '60s, by the mid-'70s the city was again in bad shape and the museum actually closed for three weeks in 1975.
The State of Michigan supported the museum for 25 years, but in 1990 state budget cuts reduced this support and started what were, in effect a series of fund-raising drives to pay for the DIA’s annual operations. By 2004, the DIA had lost all its state support and was raising $15 million just to keep the museum open. In 2009, we cut staff by 20 percent and reduced the budget by 30 percent.
In 2012, we were able to pass a tri-county tax supporting the DIA for 10 years, during which time we intend to create an unrestricted operating endowment that will permanently remove the need for significant support from public funds. The bankruptcy badly disrupted our timetable for this, but we are planning a campaign to raise about $250 million for this purpose. As part of the bankruptcy settlement, the city transferred all museum assets back to the private group that had been running the DIA since 1998.
FNL: At what point did it become clear that the Rivera works were out of the woods, and what happened to prevent their sale?
Beal: The Rivera murals were never under direct threat, although an expert hired by one of the creditors asserted that it was possible. The bankruptcy settlement occurred before he could give his highly questionable testimony. Media coverage has consistently emphasized the threat to the collection – which was real enough – without giving any sense of the considerable obstacles that stood in the way.
FNL: What is the current fiscal health of the museum and what does its future look like?
Beal: The DIA currently has financial stability that it has not had for 40 years but this stability goes away in 2023 when we must either get the tax renewed or raise a lot of money for an unrestricted operating endowment.
FNL: How long has this Rivera-Kahlo show been in the works?
Beal: I first suggested the idea about 10 years ago. It expanded into a larger exhibition based on Rivera’s influence in the U.S. in the 1930s. The project was put on hold as we went through the business of getting the tax passed, but when that was done, I revived the original idea of the “human interest story” based on their time in Detroit.