44th Annual AIC Meeting – Track A: Confronting the Unexpected, May 16, "Preservation of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) Collection: Protecting Art at Risk" by Barbara Heller

Here was a distinctly man-made disaster of epic proportions. Director and Conservator, Special Projects, Barbara Heller’s past experience had included work on 1966 Florence flood-damaged books and paintings and she was a responder for the DIA’s emergency team, yet no amount of disaster mitigation had prepared her for the stress and uncertainty of bankruptcy. At the risk of oversimplification, the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts’ collection was put at risk of being sold when the city of Detroit declared Chapter 9 in July, 2013.
The DIA collection, one of the largest in the country, includes iconic works by Bellini, Breugel, Frans Hals and Diego Rivera to name a few. Incorporated as a private nonprofit “Founders Society” in 1885, the DIA had moved from the private sector to a city-owned entity in 1919, with a new building dedicated to the people of Detroit. Now the City’s creditors believed the artwork should be sold against municipal debts. The DIA maintained that it held the collection in trust for the public and that it was not for sale.
Christie’s was contracted to appraise the entire collection over a period of four months. Museum staff had to oversee the evaluators while they examined the collection in three phases. Collections management set up a designated examination room in an effort to limit access to museum storage.
Barbara was asked to conduct research, both for the evaluators and the DIA’s lawyers. Her talk emphasized the importance of maintaining access to original collection files, including registration, donor/dealer, curatorial and conservation reports. Barbara’s search revealed critical discrepancies between the museum’s digital database and the original files. For example, several early acquisitions including a Van Gogh and Matisse were listed as city donations in the digital database. Original minutes from early meetings revealed the works had been purchased by private donors and transferred to the City.
A “Grand Bargain” was eventually struck which became the City’s plan to exit bankruptcy, fund pensions and prevent the sale of DIA’s artwork. The Court found that selling the DIA’s collection would be to “forfeit Detroit’s identity.” Not quite out of the woods yet, the DIA had to raise 100 million dollars as part of the deal. Happily, a key piece of the fundraising was a 26 million dollar gift from the Ford Foundation. As of 2015, the DIA once again became a nonprofit corporation aka Founders Society Detroit Institute of Arts. As etched on the marble facade in the late 1920’s, the collection remains “Dedicated by the People of Detroit to the Knowledge and Enjoyment of Art.”