What Museums Need, What the Community Needs, and Who Starts the Conversation

By Adam Mikos

In the last year there have been many seismic changes in the museum landscape of the United States. Ironically, accessibility to collections and information has blossomed through digital channels while access to the actual collections has taken several steps backwards. In this age of constant information these changes surface then seem to slip off the radar very quickly. This essay is intended to return to two such events that occurred in the past year and reconsider their outcomes.

Possibly one of the biggest museum stories of recent history, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) had a shocking wake up call. As the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013 city officials scrambled to find assets that could be liquidated in hopes of staving off the complete financial ruin. In a surprising turn it was revealed that the DIA’s renowned collection was in fact the property of the City of Detroit. Such an arrangement is common in municipal institutions where the collection is state/city property, but care of the collection is maintained by a separate entity.

Frequently the separate entity is paid a yearly sum to cover the care and protection of the collection and, in turn, a yearly inventory and potentially an approximate valuation is submitted to the state/city to substantiate the annual amount paid. In some cases these arrangements can work well; the city provides a valued cultural outlet for the community and the collections are theoretically separated from the political streams that ebb and flow. To illustrate, for the DIA in 2013, 70% of their budget was provided by the City (by way of a property tax).

These kinds of arrangements can function well for all involved until, of course, the question of ownership is broached. Museums typically do not like to concede that the collection is not “theirs” while the City doesn’t appreciate looking like the evil twin in asserting who pays the bills. The following is an example of the DIA’s arrangement with the City of Detroit:

“Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s iconic 16th-Century painting “The Wedding Dance” has a fair market value of between $100 million and $200 million. Van Gogh’s self-portrait is worth as much as $150 million, while Rembrandt’s “The Visitation” might fetch $90 million. These revered masterpieces are the three most valuable paintings housed at the Detroit Institute of Arts that were bought directly with city funds, according to a highly anticipated final report prepared by the New York-based Christie’s auction house and obtained by the Free Press.”
(M Stryker. Detroit Free Press)

Clearly, public funds were used to purchase these works. By extension, the housing and care can be attributed to public funds as well.

At this point it might be valuable to understand the context and consider the beginnings of the DIA. The Detroit Museum of Art was founded in 1885 as a private non-profit, created by local Michigan luminaries. As early as 1893 the DMA ran into significant budgetary and funding issues. In 1919 the DMA traded away its independence for the promise of annual City funding and became the Detroit Institute of Art and the entire collection and all buildings were officially ceded to the City. Essentially the DIA became a city department funded by a yearly line in the budget. The flip side, it has been whispered, being this permanent income expectation caused the DIA to ignore creating a solid business foundation and sound financial plan. Since 1919, the DIA has existed largely on funding from the City of Detroit, coming out of the same budgets that fund schools, public works and pensions. Not without its own blemishes, since the assets were first transferred to the City, the DIA has frequently been brought to the brink of collapse. Each was the result of the whims of the political environment at the time combined with a financial footing that could not stabilize the institution. As proof of this the DIA’s historic inability to manage its own finances successfully is also well documented. Several times in the not so distant past emergency measures and layoffs have plagued the institution.

Technically ownership of the museum’s collections appears quite clear. As a result, the argument against the sale of DIA collections has focused on the intangible or theoretical. Many in the museum community showed outrage and indignation at the thought of the DIA liquidation. Such sales run cross-current to the idea of protecting the collection and the idea of being responsible for such works. Selling off collections is one of the biggest taboos in the field, even when processed according best current practices. Such actions have lead to more than one museum losing their American Alliance of Museum’s accreditation, diminished professional standing among peers and garnering general scorn among colleagues. Additionally, and possibly more importantly, any such sales of DIA works would be forced by outside hands. Politicians and financial agents would be deciding the fates of these famous pieces of art, not skilled museum professionals. Such plundering of the DIA’s riches rubbed many the wrong way. It was politicians who had caused the downfall of the city as a whole and now they were trying to bail themselves out by gutting the DIA of its most treasured possessions. An understandably bitter pill to swallow. One can easily imagine creditors rolling up their sleeves with greedy grins on their faces as they considered taking over these masterpieces. Additionally, many voices raised the concern that selling off the collection through a private auction house (Christies has been retained for the valuations) would cause the works to disappear from public view. If buyers chose to keep their purchases in their own collections the potential for viewing would all but disappear.

In response, the museum field has maintained that the DIA’s collection is untouchable. The collection could not be used to raise funds for the City’s bailout or monetized in any way. Again this is a customary knee-jerk reaction in museums, which is true, valid and in the community’s best interest, unless they don’t actually own the collection. The DIA claimed that they provide greater value as an opportunity for the people of Detroit and Michigan as a whole to experience beauty and creativity; as a refuge for thinking and reflection. Their contribution to the health of the city as a cultural institution was greater than the money raised by selling the collection could provide.

From the local Detroit communities, a powerful perspective has risen that added a different perspective to the story. Regardless of how the city was brought to its knees, the citizens of Detroit were in a dire situation. Public services had been crippled, including mass transit, the fire department, ambulances, police, public schools, and basic municipal services like streetlights and road repairs. One famous example cites the common response times for 911 calls to be upwards of 60 minutes. On an individual level, retirement funds had evaporated forcing retired populations to grapple with the loss of their pensions in an already declining economy. For many tax paying residents the possibility of getting the City back on track, resuming essential services, by selling the DIA’s most valuable paintings was not a difficult choice. Understandably they felt if City taxes paid for the acquisition and care of the works, then the City could use these assets for the public good.

The situation in Detroit is complicated and emotional. All parties involved are tightly linked to one another, each believing their needs are the most important. A generally agreed upon amount tags Detroit with approximately 18 billion in debt and liabilities. Some argue the sale of even the entire DIA collection would not alleviate in any kind of substantial way such a huge debt. In this sense a sale would both take away a valuable cultural piece of the city’s landscape without making any meaningful dent in the overall massive debt. Michigan’s own Attorney General has stated that sale of the art would be illegal because the collections are held in the public trust. This view is widely disputed in legal circles.


The Corcoran Closing

The second example occurred on the East Coast, in Washington D.C. at the Corcoran Museum. Founded in 1869 the Corcoran Museum had been in operation for 145 years when it was announced in January 2013 that that the museum would be closed, the collection liquidated and the school would be absorbed by George Washington University. Although the possibility of closing had been feared for decades, the actual news release took many as a shock.

Much of the coverage of this closure has focused on the famous beaux-arts building that is understandably the icon of the Corcoran name. Specifically, the costs of renovating and maintaining the building have been cited by the museum’s Board as the leading reason that operations must cease for the Corcoran. Estimates released by the museum place repairs at 100 million dollars. On a day-to-day basis, the Corcoran had other hurdles. According to reports, the museum ran a $2 million deficit annually and holds $2.8 million in debt. Surprisingly, on the other side of the ledger though there was an endowment of $18 million and a $44 million acquisition fund. Visitation was in the neighborhood of 103,000 per year.

This was an institution with a rich history and a collection that stood up to any in the country. The Corcoran has publicly established the collection currently consists of approximately 17,000 objects and assets (collections, buildings and college) valued at roughly $2.8 billion dollars. Similar to the DIA, brushes with bankruptcy were a common occurrence. In the past decade the Board has repeatedly sold off properties and other assets to plug the dam, but these efforts also failed to correct the finances.

Prior to the closure announcement a number of arrangements were made concerning these assets in order to provide a smooth transition. First, the prized collection (approx. 17,000 objects) will be given to the National Gallery (NG). No money will change hands for this transaction, the NG will simply assume control of the collection. The NG will assess the works, take their pick and retain whatever works it chooses. Sources have been quoted as saying up to 50% of the objects could be taken in by the NG. The objects that are not chosen will be given away to other galleries and museums across the country. The college and all it entails will be taken over in total by George Washington University (GW). In similar fashion to the collection, GW will take possession of the beaux-arts building at no cost. However, after the hand over GW would be entirely responsible for any and all renovations to the Beaux Arts building. This stipulation would seem to be of particular interest since this cost was stated to be a primary reason for the Corcoran to dissolve. Strangely, however, the university has since disputed the renovation estimates provided by the Corcoran Board and has stated they would rely on university building experts for accurate estimations. Curiously, both the NG and GW have indicated they would continue to present exhibitions and programs in the building immediately apparently disregarding the concerns stated by the Corcoran. “This is not a swallowing of the Corcoranthis is the end of the Corcoran and its final dismemberment,” according to Phillip Kennicott, a Washington Times art critic.

The Corcoran had experienced many years of financial troubles prior to the decision to close. Constant CEO turnover and poor financial management even led to the emergence of alternative activist groups such as “Save the Corcoran” concerned with the future of the museum. A final effort was made and the Board spent more than $600,000 on a strategic management plan. This project was taken on by the company Real Change Strategies Inc. The resulting plan unfortunately did not lead the museum out of trouble. In 2009 a partner at Real Change was named Chief Operating Officer of the Corcoran, then later became Interim Director and CEO of the museum despite having no experience in museums. At this time a number of other Real Change employees were also hired and took over high level positions within the Corcoran. These hirings were later seen from the outside by many as “death by consultant”.

Interim President and Director at the time Peggy Loar has sought to paint the closing of the Corcoran as a step toward being “more exciting,” “stronger,” and “more widely accessible.” These comments appear to be at odds with the plan to disburse the collection, cut programs and shutter a highly esteemed cultural institution.

Unlike the events at the DIA, the closure of the Corcoran was met with laconic resignation. The museum community was largely mute in response other than lamenting the closure of a storied and rich cultural icon. Upon closer inspection there is a disconnect between these two events and how the museum community reacted. For the DIA, there was outrage that the collections could be compromised and the selling of any works was unconscionable. Numerous editorials were written defending the DIA and rattling sabers in the name of professional standards and stewardship. On the other hand, the collections of the Corcoran are to be pulled apart completely, students in the college programs disrupted and an iconic building given away on disputed pretenses. No letters of outrage were published, emotional pleas for maintaining the collections integrity were few if any and assets valued at $2.8 billion were apparently unable to buoy a renowned American institution. By their own description the Corcoran’s collection will in large part disappear from public view as it is divided and spread across untold collections. If the NG does take up to 50% of the objects they couldn’t possibly exhibit them in addition to the current collection. When the objections to the DIA dispersal are applied to the Corcoran there are no apparent reasons why the same outcry did not occur.

There are two main pieces in these stories to connect. First, both institutions experienced decades of well documented financial turbulence. Second, both came to the brink of final closure. What is of greatest interest is how these stories were portrayed and responded to within the museum field. The potential sell-off of the DIA’s collection raised a furor. The dissolution of the Corcoran, a pillar of American museums, was met with hushed tones and little explanation. The DIA having its collection dispersed was unthinkable. For the Corcoran it was spun to represent a positive opportunity for audiences. Was it hypocritical to publicly support the DIA and condemn the breaking up of their collection, while standing mute on the “dismemberment” and dispersal of the Corcoran?

Adam Mikos is a Board Member of the Western Museums Association and is Chair of the Charles Redd Award for Excellence in Exhibitions Committee. His 15 years of museum experience range from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles), to searching behind refrigerators for missing collections objects at smaller museums. His professional focus rests on exhibitions, collections, and public programs.



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