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DIA is tone deaf — but does it still deserve my money?

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

I went to the DIA the other day with a question no one could answer but me:

Should I renew?

I've been a member for 25 years, since 1988. I'd moved here a few years before that with only a few requirements for a new base camp: major league baseball, a good zoo and some museums I couldn't clip through in two hours.

The DIA did its part to make Detroit feel like home, so I've done my part to make the museum feel appreciated. But this year …

This year, I wasn't sure.

This year, thanks to the diligent reporting of The Detroit News' Jennifer Chambers, I learned that three top executives received $90,000 worth of bonuses in 2013, when Detroit was in bankruptcy and throngs of people were raising millions of dollars to keep the paintings on the walls.

I learned that in 2012, when the DIA was stumping for a three-county millage, director Graham Beal and COO Annmarie Erickson each cashed a bonus check for $50,000.

I learned that it's a good thing Beal and his board run an art museum and not the symphony, because they couldn't be more tone deaf.

"The optics of it stink," Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said. "The public rallied behind the DIA, and this is the thanks they get?"

Apparently. And then some of us got reminders that our Affiliate-level memberships were expiring, and could we please send $180, or better yet, $300 for an upgrade to Patron?

I'd never hesitated before to reach for my checkbook.

Last week, I reached for my car keys instead.

Wrong time to be defensive

Friendly people behind the ticket counter at the Farnworth Street entrance. That's a plus.

Folding mesh-and-metal camp stools hanging from a rack beneath a sign that says, "Borrow a seat!" Another plus, and another sign that the DIA has become more customer friendly since Beal showed up in 1999.

A few steps in, a landscape collage by George Morrison. Bits and chunks and swirls of driftwood, and then as you stare at it, you begin to see the horizon and the genius.

Among the beauties of the DIA: spending quality time with something you've never even noticed before.

Among the beauties of running the DIA: total compensation for Beal last year of $513,868.

Which I'm fine with, actually. Major league museum, major league salary. But:

Bush league response from DIA board chair Eugene Gargaro when the news broke.

"We sincerely regret," he said last month, "that we did not anticipate the way in which our promotion and compensation decision in late 2011 and early 2012 would be perceived in late 2014."

Wrong time to be defensive and sincerely insincere. And tone deaf.

Bonuses are repaid

Museum board ultimately repaid the $90,000 in bonuses from 2013. Nice to have $90,000 in your other pants.

If you're a retiree whose pension got nicked in the bankruptcy deal, maybe you'll have $90,000 total across half a decade.

Another gallery nicety, though: a rack of magnifying glasses in a room of sketches and lithographs from the likes of Degas, Renoir and Cezanne.

And, another discovery: through May 17, mesmerizing photos of everyday people by Corine Vermeulen from her Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio.

Onward to the airy Kresge Court, past three or four groups of schoolkids who seem genuinely glad to be in an art museum. Concentrating at an easel clipped to a canvas tote, a slender, long-haired, black-clad man with a razor-sharp lead in his mechanical pencil.

"Can you think of a better place to work?" asks Ronald Warunek, 63, of Detroit. Not really, and the DIA lets him.

Big points for that, and a big point by Warunek, who's shading a photo he took at a Hart Plaza music festival.

"In 200 years, when the photo has disappeared," he says, "the drawing will be left behind."

In 200 years, when I've disappeared, the artworks I'm admiring will be left behind, too.

So OK, I'll write the check. But the DIA is drawing a big, frosty mug of tax money now, directly from the public tap.

We'll all be watching to see who drinks it.