It’s looking more and more like all the protesting in the world won’t be able to save the precious artworks at the Detroit Art Institute. With the city of Detroit in bankruptcy, and with Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s unelected emergency manager, taking his job as Temporary Total Dictator way over the top, Historic Detroit is in a place where whatever Kevyn wants, Kevyn gets.
It’s not a good place to be.
Annmarie Erickson, the DIA’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, sat in on a meeting recently where Orr made it clear that when it came to our beloved DIA he’s not feelin’ the love. She wrote about it in the Detroit Free Press the other day:
Responding to a question, Orr said again that if the Detroit Institute of Arts can’t come up with a way to “help” Detroit, he will force the issue. His implication was that somehow the DIA is holding out.
How much help would the emergency manager like from the DIA? The number we have heard is $500 million. And how is the DIA to come up with a half-billion dollars? Rent art. Ask your donors. Sell some art. The DIA has carefully explored those suggestions, and none will satisfy the city’s hunger for cash without dismantling the museum.
Five hundred million is an outrageous figure and Orr knows it. My guess is that it’s a bargaining chip, so that when he drops it to, say, three hundred million, it’ll seem like Christmas all over again.
The DIA has never had an extended period of time when it felt safe. That’s because it’s wholly owned by the city of Detroit, a municipality not known for its stability. Today’s additional burdens of a dictatorship and a bankruptcy–a combined first for any city this size–means the number crunchers are seeing that gorgeous building and all its contents as a glistening pot of gold in the middle of a desert.
The history of the DIA is fraught with peril. If there ever comes a day when things settle down and the works of art long entrusted to the museum can rest easy, I hope I’m around to see it. From the looks of things, I’m not counting on it.
I wrote about the museum in July when Sotheby’s sneaked in and began to assess the artwork, so I won’t go into that part of it again, but I happened to be looking at the DIA history timeline yesterday when I noticed they left something out.
In 1983 The DIA was actually sued by a group of previously loyal, wealthy donors who got a touch of food poisoning at a fund-raising event put on by the DIA Founders Society.
I was writing a weekly column for a suburban Detroit newspaper chain at the time, and when I was scouring the papers one day for material, I saw a small headline in the Detroit Free Press, hidden way at the bottom of page 3A. It read, “14 sue DIA, claim food left them ill.” (I know this because I still have the yellowed clip.)
The lede went like this:
“Fourteen people who came down with food poisoning at the swanky $115-a-head fundraiser for the Detroit Institute of Arts filed suit against the DIA and the Founders Society Thursday in hopes of recovering something for the cramps, nausea and diarrhea that marked the aftermath of the soiree.”
NO! Really? They sued? But here was the kicker:
The suit was filed against the DIA and the Founders Society, a non-profit organization that raises money for the DIA, and asks for ‘just and reasonable’ compensation of at least $10,000.
Dick Purtan, a famous Detroit radio personality, was among those who got sick and sued. (So was Florine Mark, of Weight Watchers fame, and William Hill, the head of GM.) I listened to Purtan’s show every day on my way to work back then and he could be highly entertaining. Funny, even. He was always involving himself in charity events, so this came as a complete surprise. But it got worse.
His radio station, WCZY, was the co-sponsor of the dinner! Here they were, trying to raise funds for the ever-challenged DIA, and now Purtan and the others were out there spearheading a lawsuit to take a good chunk of the raised funds back.
Unfortunately, I didn’t keep up with the lawsuit so I don’t know what happened. I suspect the celebrity fundraisers dropped it like a hot potato. Because, really–who wouldn’t? But when even your best friends turn on you, you know you’ve some some heavy duty problems.
And so it goes with the DIA. Stay tuned. We’re hoping for better news the next time.