This Issue 5 logo was handset and printed at Signal-Return, Detroit

Video essay
Documenting Detroit's Art Museum Drama
Genevieve Savage
An update on the DIA from the writer and producer of Detroit Art City

Detroit is changing. Detroit is a hotbed for creativity right now. Detroit is coming back. For the past five years, the writers at the New York Times (among many national news outlets) have dedicated themselves to promoting Detroit’s changing image. From a Detroiter’s perspective, this recent burst of national news attention seems sort of…strange. Sometimes it’s hard to see change up close. But I’ve been paying close attention.

Back in December 2013, the documentary I wrote and produced for Detroit’s PBS station, WTVS, was broadcast regionally on the same network. The one-hour documentary, Detroit Art City: The Detroit Institute of Arts Story, was the culmination of nearly two years of research on—and shooting with—Detroit’s preeminent art museum at a pivotal point in the institution’s fascinating 130-year history. The documentary went behind the scenes at the DIA, recognized as one of the top six comprehensive art museums in the United States. The documentary provided the museum’s unique back-story—how, as other museums struggle with attendance issues, the DIA instead broke with tradition and rethought both what art it displays, and how it displays that art.

As filming progressed throughout 2012, the narrative naturally began to focus on the admirable leadership of museum Director Graham Beal. Detroit Art City shows this remarkable transformation and unpacks how, despite the success of the museum’s groundbreaking renovation/reinstallation (completed in 2007), the DIA was faced with an unthinkable crisis in 2012—after a loss of all municipal funding, the museum’s fate rested on the success of the surrounding tri-county’s approval of a millage (property) tax. On August 7, 2012, the citizens of the three counties that contain and surround Detroit voted in favor of a ten-year commitment to a small increase in real estate taxes that would guarantee the institute $23 million a year, roughly two-thirds of its annual operating budget. It was an awesome moment to capture on film.

On December 3, 2013, a US bankruptcy judge ruled Detroit as eligible to file Chapter 9 bankruptcy. My documentary premiered on public television in Detroit the following week. The doc covered the events leading up to the bankruptcy announcement. Upon broadcast, it was well received—including being selected for screening in a local film festival and a regional Emmy nomination.

More than a year later (January 29, 2014), after a soap opera-esque drama (wherein Detroit’s Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr considered selling the DIA’s artwork to pay off city debts), the DIA pledged to raise and contribute $100 million over twenty years toward the so-called “grand bargain” deal. The grand bargain is essentially the city’s roadmap out of bankruptcy. The grand bargain plan (totaling more than $800 million in pledged donations) was finally approved on November 7, 2014.

On January 5, 2015, the DIA announced that it had made good on its pledge and raised the $100 million. Barely forty-eight hours later, the institution announced Director Graham Beal’s retirement. The museum also announced a $275-million campaign to increase its endowment and stabilize its long-term finances. The former came as a shock, the latter as a relief.

Unlike other municipal art museums in other major cities, the DIA lacks an adequate operating endowment (less than $100,000). The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for example, has a $2.7 billion endowment, the largest among cultural institutions in the United States. Houston’s art museum’s endowment is over $1 billion; Chicago’s Art Institute is over $800 million.

I was disappointed to hear the news about Graham Beal’s departure as director. During his sixteen-year tenure as Director, Beal oversaw fundraising and construction of the $158 million renovation (reinstallation) in 2007; additionally, he played a key role in securing the 2012 ballot initiative (property tax) victory, yielding $23 million a year for the museum’s operational costs.

But I understand Beal’s departure. One of the most poignant nuggets of information I dug up while researching the DIA’s history for Detroit Art City was that Detroit’s been seen as the Comeback City since the 1930s. I was struck by how little has changed.

Making Detroit Art City taught me that the only way for the city to truly come back is for those New York Times writers to continue to write their Detroit stories and for people (creative types and others) to keep moving to Detroit. I like the term “industrial heritage” for a place like Detroit. To me, it means people with the capacity to respect the culture and history of a place without romanticizing that heritage to the point of being afraid to initiate change. In short, cities need places like the DIA. And people like Graham Beal.

Meet the production team of Detroit Art City and read a synopsis of the documentary.

Browse the collections at the DIA.

View a timeline of Detroit’s bankruptcy, spanning January 2011 to November 2014.

Read more about the DIA’s “grand bargain.”

Read how Graham Beal saved the DIA’s priceless treasures.

View the ten largest endowments held by US cultural institutions.

Read about Detroit’s 2013 “Comeback City” marketing campaign.