In the wake of Thursday’s news that Detroit Institute of Arts Director Graham Beal is retiring, experts across the museum world lauded his accomplishments in steering the museum through one of its most turbulent periods.
“Whoever takes Graham’s job is going to have big shoes to fill,” said Ray Silverman, director of museum studies at the University of Michigan. “He’s done an exceptional job dealing with a lot of adversity a lesser director wouldn’t have been able to handle.”
William H. Peck, a former DIA curator who wrote the authoritative history of the museum, said “Graham was a good director for the times.”
Beal, 67, not only pulled off a complete renovation of the museum in 2007, but he simultaneously pioneered a new customer-friendly approach that many dismissed as “Disneyfication” before they saw the results.
Additionally, in 2012, Beal succeeded in winning a 10-year millage from the voters of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties that yields the museum about $22 million a year. It covers most of the museum’s expenses and will allow it to direct its considerable fundraising prowess toward bulking up its small endowment.
As to what he’ll do once he leaves the director’s office at the end of June, Beal said: “I don’t have any particular plans,” though he added that lecturing and writing are likely to occupy a large part of his time.
“Right now, I’m focusing on the retirement aspect of retirement,” he joked.
Also up in the air is whether he’ll leave Detroit — his Palmer Woods house is on the market. Beal again professes uncertainty. “My wife, who grew up in Minnesota, has become allergic to snow,” he said. “But then, we’ve made many good friends during our time here.”
It remains to be seen whether recent national attention on the DIA will help or hurt the search for Beal’s successor.
Recruiting to Detroit has always been an uphill battle. Beal himself notes the museum searched for more than two years before he signed on in 1999, though he added that the reputations of both city and museum are very different today.
“Everybody in the museum world knows about the DIA now,” Beal said, crediting 18 months of bankruptcy-related public relations about the potential value of its storied collection.
“When I first came here, I had to explain to everyone how great it was.”
Asked how recent controversy over DIA executive salaries might affect recruiting, Beal said: “Well, what effect do you think that kind of publicity is going to have?”
Outsiders, however, say there should be no concern.
“I think filling that job will be as easy as any director’s position these days,” said Silverman. “These sorts of issues are present in a lot of communities.”
An additional argument for Detroit, he noted, is the fact that the bankruptcy’s “grand bargain” to cushion cuts to Detroit pensioners and save the collection held together.
“It’s a real testimony to the value that citizens put on their museum,” Silverman said, and one he thinks potential applicants would find highly appealing.
Kym Rice, who directs museum studies at George Washington University, said “I can’t imagine they’re not going to find a good candidate to replace Beal.”
“The opportunity to work with that collection, and at a museum that’s really thought a lot about how to reach its audience, is likely to be very attractive,” Rice said.