The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), formerly known as the Detroit Museum of Art, has been a landmark in the city since its creation in 1885 by James Scripps, a newspaper publisher and philanthropist with a love for great art.
Scripps donated the first pieces to the museum — 70 Dutch and Flemish paintings he had collected while traveling around Europe — which were valued at around $75,000.
Over the years, the DIA evolved and changed, taking on different forms as other museums in the area combined with it. At one point, a natural history museum was absorbed into the museum, so that there were antlers and stuffed animals in one gallery along with art.
It wasn’t until the 1920s — by which time the museum’s name had been officially changed to the Detroit Institute of Art — that the museum began to thrive, due in large part to private donations.
The collection continued to grow with each new director, who made their own contributions. James Scripps’ son-in-law, Ralph Harmon Booth, was actively involved in bringing German scholar and art connoisseur, William Valentiner, into the project. Together, the pair helped the museum acquire what is now one of the greatest collections of European art in the country.
The last substantial lifetime gift the DIA received came in the 1970s from Eleanor Ford. The museum used the money to build their African collection.
This collection — considered one of the best in the United States — includes an astounding 65,000 pieces, ranging from classic paintings to indigenous American sculptures. Six thousand of these pieces are currently on display in the museum — van Rijn, Vincent van Gogh, Jan van Eyck, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, to name a few of the highlights. But the museum is also one of the most representative, with pieces from almost every culture in the world.
“We regard ourselves as what we now call a universal museum,” said Graham Beal, director, president and CEO of the DIA. “But you can also use the term encyclopedic, which basically means there is no where in time or geography that we will not go looking to acquire art. The only significant area where we have genuine weakness is the Oceanic, or the art of the Pacific Islands. You can see dozens and dozens of cultures represented here.”
In recent years, the city of Detroit has faced severe financial turmoil, filing for bankruptcy in July 2013. The city’s financial straits directly affected the museum when Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to handle the city’s finances, announced that he would consider selling the museum’s art, if it would help the city’s financial crisis.
The DIA’s art can be sold because the museum is not a nonprofit organization like many museums, but rather a city agency, like a public library. In 1920, when the independent organization that was running the museum could no longer afford to keep up operations, an agreement was reached wherein the building and its collections were turned over to the city of Detroit.
The foundation that started the museum, which renamed itself the Detroit Museum of Art Founders Society after operations were turned over to the city in 1920, stayed on to work as an advocacy group, raising funds to continue purchasing art until 1998. After that year, the city could no longer maintain the museum on its own, so operations were subcontracted back to the Founders Society under the name the Detroit Institute of Arts, Incorporated.
The city, therefore, owns the building and all the art inside, while the independent, not-for-profit organization has been responsible for taking care of day-to-day operations within the museum.
An uncertain future
As the building and collections belong to the city of Detroit, it is within the city’s right to sell the art as they see fit. Several steps have been taken to avoid this unpopular outcome. Several foundations in the city have stepped forward to pledge roughly $370 million to the museum to help it maintain the collection, as well as assist the pension program.
From this, a plan has been negotiated, but not finalized, where the money from the foundations — in conjunction with $100 million dollars pledged from Detroit Institute of Arts, Inc., which is the organization running the museum and $350 million promised by the state — would be used to turn the museum back into a privately owned not-for-profit again.
“The deal would be that the city would relinquish the building and collections to that independent, not-for-profit entity,” said Jeffrey Abt, a professor in the department of Art and Art History at Wayne State University. “Then it would continue on into the future as it had originally been established.”
If the plan does go forward and the museum is turned back into a nonprofit organization, the financial position of the museum could be strengthened in the long run. However, the museum may face some financial difficulties in the short run as it had already agreed to a plan, before negotiations had begun about turning the museum back into a nonprofit, that would require them to raise $400 million in 10 years, in addition to the $100 million the nonprofit entity pledged to raise over the next 20 years.
The museum’s future, though, is still unclear as plans move forward. Until the uncertainty is cleared up the museum intends to carry on operations as normal.
“Right now it’s business as usual,” Beal said. “We know what we want to do, we’re very aggressive and I don’t think I’m boasting when I say we’re one of the leading art museums in this country.”