Changing of guard at cultural Big Three

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts writer

With David DiChiera’s announcement that he’ll retire as the Michigan Opera Theatre’s founder and artistic director next year, the changing of the guard at each of Detroit’s three most-important arts organizations is now set in cement.

Michigan Opera Theatre artistic director David DiChiera, top, is set to retire at the end of the 2016-17 season. DiChiera’s exit follows those by Graham Beal, middle, former director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Leonard Slatkin, Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s music director.

The Detroit Institute of Arts’ Graham Beal stepped down last summer, succeeded by Salvador Salort-Pons. At the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Music Director Leonard Slatkin plans to move into an emeritus role in 2018.

DiChiera said he will step down at the end of the 2016-17 season, taking time to work on his second opera and write a book.

“I’m going to write about creating an opera company in Detroit,” he said, “a biography about a lot of interesting people.”

MOT and DSO have both launched searches for successors.

Jerry Herron, dean of Wayne State University’s Honors College, sees the passing of an era.

“It’s a real generational change,” Herron said, “with leaders who played vital roles and accomplished great things for the community.”

If it doesn’t quite amount to a Detroit version of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” or twilight of the gods, all three directors will surely loom large in the history of their respective institutions.

Call them summa cum laude graduates of the school of hard knocks. Veterans of crisis-filled years, each stared down existential threats to his institution, rebuilt its relationship with its audience and left the organization in far better shape than he found it.

They all had to weather the 2008 economic collapse, which pistol-whipped arts nonprofits and depressed contributions and corporate and foundation funding for years.

The bottom line, said John Bracey, executive director for the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, is that “these organizations in particular were lucky to have the people in place that they did.”

MOT’s beginning

DiChiera is the only one of the three departing directors who invented his organization from scratch, launching MOT in 1971, back in the days when most dismissed the idea that Detroit needed an opera company.

Doubters didn’t count on his ambition.

In 1989, DiChiera acquired two ruined movie theaters near Grand Circus Park, in such wretched shape they practically defined “ruin porn.” He barnstormed the metro area to raise $24 million for a gut renovation and expansion, creating a surprisingly elegant downtown opera house. Legendary soprano Joan Sutherland cut the ribbon at the 1996 grand opening.

“People all thought I was smoking something or had no grasp on reality,” said DiChiera, 80. “On the latter, they were probably right. They said people were not going to come down here, but I said downtown Detroit was where an opera company belonged.”

In 2007, DiChiera premiered his own opera, “Cyrano,” at the Detroit Opera House.

After the financial collapse of 2008, MOT, like all arts organizations, found itself hard-pressed and took out an $18 million bond to keep itself afloat.

But they ended up drowning in debt service. In 2012, MOT renegotiated its debt, reducing interest payments from $2.4 million a year to just $370,000 — a veritable life raft.

And in 2013, the Kresge Foundation named DiChiera its eminent artist for the year.

CAPTION INFORMATION. Detroit Symphony Orchestra iwth conductor Leonard Slatkin atOrchestra Hall in Detroit, Michigan on September 25, 2013. (Image by Daniel Mears/ The Detroit News)

Surviving hardships

There’s no denying DiChiera overcame daunting crises. But in many ways it was Beal, who arrived in Detroit in 1999, who faced the direst, most existential threats to his institution — and not just once, but over and over again.

After the museum’s 2007 renovation and daring reinterpretation, a marathon sprint that consumed two-plus years, the museum was slammed by the stock-market collapse. In response, Beal laid off 20 percent of his staff, but still had to endure years of white-knuckle fundraising to keep the enterprise afloat.

Warning the DIA would simply not survive, the museum successfully fought and won the 2012 battle for tri-county tax funding — only to be sucker-punched a year later by the mortal threat posed to the collection by Detroit’s bankruptcy.

In the midst of the bankruptcy proceedings, a controversy erupted over Beal’s and other top executive salaries at the museum, which morphed a potent political issue in the three millage counties.

“Graham got way more than he bargained for,” said Maud Lyon, once-time executive director of Michigan’s CultureSource who now heads the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. “He never signed on to deal with the political challenges of the bankruptcy.”

At the DSO, Slatkin had to navigate the treacherous rip tides of the 2010-11 musicians’ strike, just a couple of years after his arrival in Detroit, and then somehow stitch the orchestra back into a cohesive whole after an embittering six months.

All the while, the DSO was laboring under $54 million in debt that was finally lifted off its balance sheet when the orchestra reached an agreement with the five banks that held the loan, giving it much-needed breathing room. The terms of the deal have never been made public.

[Caption Info] Ernst Ludwig Kirchner "Winter Landscape in Moonlight, 1919 is one of Beal's favorite paintings. Brief: An interview Graham Beal - Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA): the value of the DIA art. Thursday, August 15, 2013 (Photo by Ricardo Thomas/The Detroit News)

Cultural leaders

“When you think about it,” Bracey said, “Detroit’s just been blessed with some really strong cultural leadership. And each of those three directors also had amazing people behind them,” he added, citing in particular the DIA’s Annmarie Erickson, executive vice president and chief operating officer.

“And don’t forget Gene Gargaro,” Lyon said, citing the DIA board chairman who was an indispensable player during the bankruptcy. “It’d be a terrible omission not to mention him.”

At the DSO, Bracey points to president and CEO Anne Parsons and her administrative staff, which handled the thorny financial questions. “Anne,” he said, “has been just amazing.”

As Herron see is, Detroit has a history of good fortune in its cultural leaders.

“This has been a very lucky place more often than not,” he said, “and a very lucky place in the continued survival of its arts organizations. Other communities,” Herron added, “haven’t been so lucky.”