Boston-based Technical Development Corp.'s Susan Nelson will assist the Detroit Institute of Arts in naming a seven-member governance committee. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
An arts consultant well-known to Detroit cultural organizations has been appointed to a high-profile post advising the Detroit Institute of Arts as part of the city’s bankruptcy plan.
Susan Nelson of the Boston-based Technical Development Corp. would “facilitate and advise” DIA officials in naming a new seven-member governance committee if the proposed “grand bargain” — an $816 million fund to protect city pensions and DIA art — is approved.
Nelson, who will step into the spotlight in a politically charged bankruptcy, declined to be interviewed by The News.
Nelson’s appointment was included in Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s most recent debt-cutting plan to resolve Detroit’s historic bankruptcy.
Nelson joined TDC in 1987 after stints at the Boston Housing Authority and the Opera Company of Boston. She is one three principals at the small firm, and advised the DIA on its strategic plan in 2007-08.
Orr’s office declined to elaborate on Nelson’s role; nor would DIA officials comment. But the language in Orr’s plan makes clear that the museum’s existing board of directors will not be dissolved. Indeed, the DIA board would have to approve any recommendations coming out of the governance committee.
Three committee members will represent the interests of the DIA, while four others will speak, respectively, for the state, the city, participating foundations and the three counties with millages benefiting the museum.
“Susan Nelson is an excellent choice,” said Laura Trudeau, managing director for Community Development and Detroit programs at the Kresge Foundation, which has committed $100 million to the grand bargain. “She has worked with many Detroit organizations and is well-qualified to help the DIA and the governance committee think about best practices.”
“Really smart and very funny” is how Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the New York-based League of American Orchestras described Nelson. The League engaged TDC to develop a financial diagnostic plan for member orchestras. “The plan been used very successfully by about 50 orchestras around the country,” Rosen said. “Susan’s work has helped elevate the importance of appropriate capital in orchestra planning and thinking, both at the governance and management level.”
The DIA’s former chief curator, David Penney — now at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian — said TDC was hired “to review DIA options for fiscal stability in the wake of our reopening in 2007. TDC reviewed and endorsed the millage concept as the DIA’s best bet — and pretty much the only option, as I recall.”
Penney said he was initially unfamiliar with TDC, but that key DIA board members recommended the outfit, describing it as one of the big players in the not-for-profit world.
Locally, Nelson also worked with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Michigan Opera Theatre. MOT’s new president and CEO, Wayne S. Brown, said he first met Nelson years ago when she was advising the Philadelphia Orchestra. He called TDC “a credible firm with significant experience in the arts.”
Nelson will come to Detroit armed with considerable financial expertise. Her page on the TDC website notes that she’s worked on mergers, strategic business plans, organizational and financial assessments, financial restructuring and facilities planning. “Susan’s practice,” it added, “focuses on the complex challenge of aligning an organization’s strategy, implementation plan and financial sustainability.”
Among her clients past and present are Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Plimoth Plantation, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School.
Nelson lives in Ipswich, Mass., north of Boston.