Beal's legacy: Secure future for transformed DIA

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

With his retirement Tuesday, Detroit Institute of Arts Director Graham Beal steps into DIA history as its most consequential leader since the museum's legendary first director, William Valentiner.

DIA Director Graham Beal with paintings of the 17th through 19th centuries from France, Italy and the Low Countries in the "Influence of Antiquity" gallery. Left is "The Judgment of Paris", 1812, by Baron Jean-Baptiste Regnault.

Beal's years have been marked by accomplishment and tumult, characterized by a see-saw cycle of success followed almost immediately by new crisis.

He physically reinvented a museum grown fusty and defied art snobs to turn the DIA into the most visitor-friendly encyclopedic art museum in the country.

The British-born Beal, 67, successfully steered the 130-year-old institution through recurring fiscal crises, winning the hard-fought 2012 tri-county millage.

He and his museum also survived the near-death experience of the Detroit bankruptcy — an ordeal that had the ironic effect of spreading word of the DIA's remarkable collection to the far corners of the globe.

"It's a hackneyed word, but Graham's impact has been truly transformational," said Rick Rogers, president of the College for Creative Studies.

"The DIA has been completely renewed. It's physically magnificent, the re-installation of the collection was revolutionary, and the DIA has been embraced by the region in a way it never was before."

Even occasional critics agree.

"Every one of us wants to leave our institution stronger than we found it," said Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, whose constituents voted overwhelmingly to support the millage. "Graham has accomplished that."

Beal declined to be interviewed for this story.

Given the drama and extensive media coverage, the successful fight to save the collection during the bankruptcy will inevitably be what the public most remembers about Beal's tenure.

However, industry insiders cite the 2007 reinstallation and reinterpretation of the collection — when Beal upended art museum tradition by abandoning the dry, art-historical narrative in favor of human stories capable of engaging the average visitor — as his most daring feat.

It was an accomplishment, said Wayne State University art and art history professor Jeffrey Abt, author of a DIA history titled "A Museum on the Verge," with national repercussions.

"The reinstallation represented a dramatic change, not just for DIA, but for American art museums in general," Abt said. "It's hard to overestimate its impact."

Engaging with the art

Newly arrived in 1999 from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Beal argued the industry had to do something to combat what he called "the museum glide" — the plodding procession of glazed-eye visitors, only minimally engaged with the art — or art museums would wither and die.

Before the 2007 grand reopening, some publications like the Art Newspaper of London sniffed that Beal's plans represented a sort of "Disneyfication."

"Critics just assumed the whole thing would be dumbed down," Abt said, "and that's not what happened. I've spent a fair amount of time there since the reinstallation, and you see a level of engagement with the art that's different from before."

Detroit Institute of Arts director Graham Beal speaks during a news conference on the steps of the DIA in 2012 as he welcomes and thanks the voters for passing the museum's millage.

Attendance statistics appear to back this up. Attendance jumped from 250,022 in 2005 to 630,000 last year.

The current special exhibition, "Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo in Detroit," which runs through July 12, has drawn more than 126,000 in its first 14 weeks.

But just as Beal pivoted from the reopening's success, the bottom fell out of the economy in late 2008.

The museum had been strapped for funds ever since the state slashed its support under Gov. John Engler. In 1991, the city-owned DIA got $16 million from Lansing, which dropped to zero by 2009.

Despite its prodigious fundraising prowess — the museum never went into debt — the DIA, like most cultural institutions nationwide, was sucker-punched by the financial collapse.

Budget slashed

On a cold, bitter day in March 2009, Beal announced draconian reductions.

"Staff was cut by 20 percent," said DIA Board chairman Eugene A. Gargaro Jr., "and the budget went from $34 million to $25 million."

Former staffers contacted by The Detroit News complained Beal has systematically downgraded the power of curatorial departments, but none would speak on the record.

Convinced the DIA could not survive unless it built up its small endowment to cover annual costs, the museum launched a two-year full-court press to get the voters of Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties to pass a millage to cover most operating expenses for 10 years — breathing room that would enable the DIA to funnel money raised into the endowment, not daily expenses.

In a feat that stunned many across the cultural community, in 2012 voters in all three counties approved a 10-year, 0.2-mill tax that yields the museum about $23 million a year.

Paul W. Hogle, executive vice president of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, called the passage "extraordinary."

"Graham's legacy will be that he secured the future of the museum," Hogle said. "The millage was one of those crowning moments."

For his part, Beal called the voters' endorsement "the ultimate endorsement of what we've done."

Then, once again, success was followed by mortal threat.

Detroit bankruptcy threat

Out of the blue in late spring 2013, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr announced that he was taking steps to assess the value of the DIA's city-owned collection in preparation for a possible sale to satisfy Detroit's creditors.

In a bankrupt city, the museum's treasures — some appraisers put the value as high as $8.5 billion — were seen as the city's most-valuable asset.

For Beal, it was like being struck by lightning.

"It does feel a little like that," he told The Detroit News at the time. "We establish financial stability the museum hasn't had in 40 years, and now along comes this."

Beal called the prospect of a sale "stomach-churning," but added, "I will have to be dismissed before any art is taken."

Much of the heavy lifting fell to Gargaro in the tortuous negotiations with foundations and the state that eventuated in the "grand bargain" that ultimately raised the equivalent of $816 million to compensate city pensioners and buy the museum's permanent independence from Detroit.

The museum itself was required to raise $100 million of that sum.

As the face of the institution, Beal was tasked with making the public case, repeating a passionate argument that the Caravaggios and Picassos and Van Goghs were the patrimony of the entire state and future generations, too rare and important to be put to auction.

Compensation controversy

One controversy that dogged Beal just before the grand bargain and Detroit bankruptcy were finalized concerned significant raises for top museum executives, including $90,000 in bonuses for 2013.

The increases enraged Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who complained they were unseemly, coming shortly after the museum pleaded for voters' money.

The DIA board reimbursed the museum the $90,000, and Gargaro apologized, conceding a mistake had been made.

"For our citizens, the salaries were a huge issue," Patterson said last week, adding he didn't suspect any wrongdoing on the part of the museum. "The timing was lousy."

With all that behind him, Beal finds himself a superstar in the museum community.

The Association of Art Museum Directors, which held its annual convention in Detroit in late May, presented Beal with its President's Award, calling the DIA's triumph "an inspiration to the entire museum community."

Gargaro, who was at the museum for the presentation, told his board at a dinner last week that the recognition was "the highest honor Graham could be paid."

Praise from Toledo

One of those directors, Brian Kennedy of the Toledo Museum of Art, tipped his hat to Beal's "stalwart and unprecedented defense of the importance of museum collections."

University of Michigan Museum of Art Director Joseph Rosa said "Graham steered the museum through some horrific moments, showcased its amazing collection, and has guided it into a very bright future. People now see the DIA in a completely new light."

"The DIA was lucky to have him."

Beal's resume

1996-99: director, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

1989-96: director, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska

1984-89: chief curator, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Beal's accomplishments

1999: Beal begins tenure with DIA

2001: $158M renovation of museum begins

2002: "Degas and the Dance" exhibit opens, drawing 171,000 visitors

2003: "Magnificenza! The Medici, Michelangelo and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence," draws 102,000 visitors

2007: Grand reopening of museum, featuring reinstalled collection, re-themed for greater appeal to average visitors

2011: "Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus," draws 116,400 visitors

2012: 10-year millage supporting museum passed by tri-counties

2014: Detroit bankruptcy and $816 million "grand bargain" approved, ending Detroit's ownership; museum established as free-standing nonprofit

2015: "Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo in Detroit," draws 126,000 in 14 weeks, with two to go

2015: Beal retires