Rescuing Detroit’s art museum: an interview with director Graham Beal

Graham Beal led the Detroit Institute of Arts through the city’s financial crisis. Les Ward

Graham Beal, the Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, recently announced that he will be retiring after fifteen years at the helm. Two of his achievements particularly stand out. The first is his rescue of the museum – when the city of Detroit went bankrupt and the whole collection was headed toward the auction block. The second is his magnificent renovation and re-installation of the museum. Never in the museum’s history have the collections looked so dazzling.

While he faced challenges unique in the history of American art museums, Graham has emerged from the ordeal unscathed. Fond of colorful bowties and an English gentleman to the core, Beal always looks as if he’s headed to a garden party. He graciously agreed to answer some questions about his experiences at the museum.

Before Detroit, you’d been director of the Los Angeles County Museum?

I went to the Los Angeles County Museum [in 1996] to be director under museum president Andrea Rich, who died just six months ago. While our relationship is sometimes cast as somewhat of a failure, we were able to completely reorganize the museum, which was really in the doldrums. The board structure was changed and we had several exhibitions that put the museum back on its feet: Van Gogh, Impressionism and so forth.

Once we solved the problems we really didn’t need two people. Andrea was a wealthy woman who didn’t need to work but she had the bit between her teeth. I found myself at loose ends. I wasn’t a curator but I also wasn’t running the place.

So you moved on…

[In 1999] I was approached a third time by the Detroit Institute of Arts, which was looking for a director. I was particularly attracted by the strength of the collection, and they had a new management structure and a new board.

When I went to Detroit, Detroiters would say, “Really?” But it’s one of the great collections of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

The original building is magnificent as well.

True, but the whole building needed attention. It was a city building and maintenance had been deferred and deferred. It had been unloved. The Beaux-Arts building [designed by architect] Paul Cret still had DC wiring.

The two wings in the back were the biggest problem, though. They’d been designed by Gunnar Birkerts, but he’d been fired part way through the construction [in the 1960s], and mediocre architects were brought in.

The wings were disastrously under-built. The granite was falling off outside. There were windows in some of the galleries with no vapor barrier. Mostly we renovated but we also did a modest expansion – we added 10% [more space].

Upon joining the DIA in 1999, Beal went to work renovating a majestic – but crumbling – museum. Quick fix/Flickr, CC BY-SA

And you also rearranged the collection?

I’d had experience working with [museum tour guides], and became aware of the huge gap that usually exists between how curators and how the public think about art. I thought it would be good to present the art to the public in a new way. We tried to rethink how art was displayed to the general public – to present it as shared human experience, rather than academic art history.

How did you finance these changes?

We launched a capital campaign that was meant to fix the building and build an endowment, and ended up raising about $250 million. But that was blown out of the water because of the economic downturn after 9/11, when Detroit went into a recession. And we discovered that we had an asbestos problem that cost $40 million to fix.

So we had declared victory – and then needed to start another campaign, which took us through the grand opening of the new DIA at the end of 2007.

And you wrote a book while all this was going on?

During the building’s renovation, we decided to tour our American collection to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. [Books are always produced to accompany major museum traveling exhibitions], though American art history written by Americans can be a little over-patriotic, which sets people’s teeth on edge in other parts of the world.

I looked for an author who had an international outlook, who didn’t see things from a completely American perspective, and when I couldn’t find one, I decided to write it myself. Yes, it’s a bit unusual for a museum director to write a book. My wife was a widow for three months.

But after the 2007 re-opening, the DIA ran into more financial problems.

We realized our business model was unsustainable. So in March of 2009, when we had just reopened, we had to let go 20% of our staff and cut our operating budget by 30%. Letting go people who had given valued service – and were continuing to give valued service. It was ghastly.

But shortly afterwards, when we campaigned to get support for the museum from a new property tax, which eventually passed in three counties. The fact that we had cut things down to the bone was a big help in certain quarters.

The city was having some difficulties around this time – wasn’t the mayor of Detroit – Kwame Kilpatrick – arrested, tried, and convicted for corruption?

We tried to keep our head below the parapet as far as Detroit politics was concerned: we tried to stay away from the center of these politics and just do our job.

Then the city went bankrupt in 2013.

I was on vacation when things really blew, so couldn’t immediately respond. My friends in America and Great Britain thought I had had some sort of breakdown. But that wasn’t the case at all. My wonderful chief operating officer was taking the calls.

When something of this magnitude happens, you can either stay the course or walk away. In the public mind I had become equated with the DIA and I thought that walking away would be a disaster.

What was the biggest immediate threat to the museum?

We discovered that the collection [worth an estimated $8.5 billion dollars, according to a 2014 appraisal] was vulnerable. The city had no other easily salable asset. The Attorney General argued that the city owned the collection. I had one meeting with the emergency committee and they were very dismissive of what I had to say. They viewed us as an elitist museum.

We believed that the DIA was a public trust, though none of us wanted to go through the courts to test that. Things were getting quite nasty and we were portrayed as the rich DIA against the poor pensioners. But then the pensioners were polled and a majority were in favor of saving the museum.

During a July 2013 news conference about the city of Detroit filing for bankruptcy, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr addresses the media as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder looks on. With assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the Detroit Institute of Arts was in danger of losing its entire collection. Rebecca Cook/Reuters

What happened next?

We finally came up with a grand bargain. $816 million was raised to repair the badly managed pension fund. The DIA was asked to raise $100 million and we raised it; and as part of the bargain the DIA went back to being a private rather than a city museum. Detroit Free Press reporter Mark Stryker, my chairman Gene Gargaro, and my COO Annmarie Erickson did a huge amount of work on our behalf.

How did you survive the stress?

I like to cook. I read a lot of history, where I learn about what real people did in real situations. It’s a way of getting a bit of distance from one’s own problems.

What will you do in retirement?

Well it means that I’m going to stop running a great big institution. I’m probably not going to stop working. I’ve already been approached by a group of people to help with an area investment. And people roll their eyes when I say this, but I’d like to go back to writing; whether or not it’s published, I’d like to write a memoir.

Any thoughts to wrap up?

I have a real biased statement. I believe that without focusing on the art – and what it should mean to the public – we wouldn’t have survived. 90% of our visitors come from three counties. Without their support, the tax levy wouldn’t have passed and without that, the museum wouldn’t have been saved. We focused on the art – and that was central to the survival of the museum.