The Detroit Free Press assembles a detailed history of the museum that has improbably become a central issue in the city’s bankruptcy. The museum’s original sin—giving up its independence and relying on municipal funds—is the reason the art has become a political issue, not a question about the relevance of the city’s art. And, as the story shows, the mis-management predates the city’s fiscal woes:
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.
Even today the DIA’s endowment for operations stands at just $103 million, well below the roughly $350-million to $650-million endowments for operations (not art) enjoyed by the Cleveland Museum of Art or the Art Institute of Chicago or the $1.55-billion endowment at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The result was that in good economic times, the DIA soared, but in bad times it struggled because it had to compete for funds with other city departments and needs. City ownership of the collection is also why the DIA’s treasures remain in the crosshairs of creditors in the bankruptcy.
DIA in Peril (Detroit Free Press)