The Story Of The DIA: 128 Years Of Fortune And Crisis

September 08, 2013, 8:20 AM

The Free Press has assembled an extraordinary online package that traces the tumultuous history of the Detroit Institute of Arts from its birth as a privately-owned non-profit to its current peril as a city-owned establishment ensnared in Detroit's bankruptcy.

"Anyone who thinks that art and politics inhabit separate spheres within civic life need only explore the roller-coaster history of the Detroit Institute of Arts," writes Mark Stryker, who wrote the history, which was designed for the web by Brian Todd.

"Under bankruptcy, the DIA might be forced to sell some of its multibillion-dollar collection to help pay some of what Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr estimates is $18 billion in debt and long-term liabilities. The crisis, which has attracted international attention, could cripple — or kill — one of America's finest encyclopedic art museums, the signature cultural institution not only in Detroit but the state of Michigan.

"But the DIA's current crisis is by no means the first time the museum has stood on the brink of collapse. For most of its 128-year lifespan the DIA has been entangled within the broad narrative of Detroit's rise and fall as an economic power and the city's complex dynamics when it comes to race, class, labor and city-suburbs divide. No American museum has endured such extensive political and financial turmoil.

"It is a unique story, tied to the museum's unparalleled municipal relationship and byzantine administrative structure. In 1919, the DIA ceded ownership of its art and building to the City of Detroit. Museum leaders traded financial and managerial independence for the promise of annual funding — except this turned out to be a Faustian bargain that irrevocably linked the DIA to the boom-and-bust cycles of Detroit's economy and ever-shifting political winds. It also created a structure and mind-set among DIA leaders that encouraged an expansion of the collection at the expense of building a business model and endowment — a nest egg that earns interest — that could sustain the museum in the long run.

Some highlights:

1893:The new museum ran into funding problems almost right away, and in 1893 began receiving subsidies from the city. 

1920s: Flush with city cash, the DIA embarked on a buying spree -- with city cash -- between 1922 and 1930 that landed some of its greatest treasures — Van Gogh's "Self-Portrait," Rembrandt's "The Visitation," Matisse's "The Window," Bellini's "Madonna and Child," Van Eyck's "Saint Jerome in His Study" and others. 

1927: The museum moved to its current address along Woodward Avenue across from the public library at a time when Detroit, after about three decades of explosive growth, was peaking as an economic powerhouse.

1930: Director William Valentiner buys Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Wedding Dance" (1566), right. Cost: $36,075 (approximately $500,000 today). It's now widely recognized as one of the museum's most valuable paintings, worth an estimated $100 million.
Great Depression: Debate ensues over whether Detroit, hit hard by the economic crisis, can afford an art museum. No art is sold.
1933: Diego Rivera murals are unveiled to great controversy. 
1950's and '60's: The museum doubles in size.
1969: Robert Hudson Tannahill, one of the DIA's foremost patrons and an heir to the Hudson's department store fortune, left 557 works to the museum upon his death, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Degas, Matisse, Renoir, Rodin and Picasso.
1972: With Detroit's financial crisis in full swing, the city cuts funding to the DIA by 40%. 
1975: The DIA shuts down for three weeks because of money woes. State funding increases greatly, but the museum's relationship with Mayor Coleman Young is complicated.
1991: Newly elected Gov. John Engler sweeps into office on a program of tax cuts and spending reduction and state funding falls drastically, causing more cuts. 
1997: The city reaches a landmark agreement with the Founders Society to transfer all museum operations to the society, now simply known as the Detroit Institute of Arts.

As Stryker acknowledges, his DIA history draws extensively on information contained in two books — Jeffrey Abt's "A Museum on the Verge," a socioeconomic history of the DIA, and William H. Peck's "The Detroit Institute of Arts." 


Read more:  Detroit Free Press

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