Economics Museums USA

Detroit Institute of Arts amends donor policy to protect future gifts

With its collection being assessed by Christie’s as part of the city’s bankruptcy, the museum is taking steps to safeguard donations

The purchase of the DIA's Tintoretto ceiling, using city funds, was only permitted by the Italian government at the time on the condition that it never leave the museum building

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) director Graham Beal writes in his September letter this week that selling any part of the art collection to cover the bankrupt city’s debts “would be tantamount to closing the museum”. The museum is taking a further step in protecting its collection, Beal tells The Art Newspaper, and plans to amend its donor policy to safeguard future gifts from being sold to pay down the city’s $18b debt. “We are inserting into our deed of gift a line stating that from any sale of the work, the proceeds can only be used to buy more art,” says the DIA’s director.

Although the DIA’s situation is somewhat unique, other institutions could benefit from following its example, says the lawyer Melinda Agsten, who heads the tax-exempt organisations practice group at the law firm Wiggin and Dana. University- or city-owned museums are vulnerable to forced sales because they are owned or operated by a governing body whose mission extends beyond that of the museum itself. These institutions are watching the situation in Detroit closely, though most have not amended to their own donor policies.

“The Museums are naturally concerned about the potential threat to the DIA’s collections,” says a spokesman for the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), which comprises the de Young and the Legion of Honor museums. Like the DIA, its collections are city property, though its deed of gift agreement does not address the sale of any donated art. “While the Board and staff will keep a keen eye on developments in Detroit, the Museums’ approach to gifts or loans has not changed,” the spokesman says.

Museums like the DIA and the Rose Museum, which nearly liquidated its collection in 2009 to benefit the financially struggling Brandeis University, “are in situations that they didn’t create,” Agsten says. Under those circumstances, a clear donor policy that says gifts can be used only to benefit the museum’s mission of collecting and displaying art—rather than the mission of the parent institution—may be the only way to permanently safeguard its collection.

The emergency manager of Detroit, which hired Christie’s earlier this month to appraise the DIA’s holdings, asked the auction house only to examine works that were acquired by the city. In his September director’s letter, Beal says: “Even here, though, the situation is clouded by the fact that patrons such as Ralph Harmon Booth personally contributed to a city of Detroit art purchase fund or lent money to enable ‘city purchases’ that seems never to have been repaid. I’ve also learned that the purchase of our wonderful ceiling painting by Tintoretto, apparently using city funds, was only permitted by the Italian government of the time, on condition that it never leave the DIA building.” It is unclear if a bankruptcy judge would examine individual donor agreements to determine if any donated works could be sold as well.

Donor limitations like the DIA’s are unlikely to appeal to independent museums, however. “In the case of a freestanding museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the board won’t volunteer to subject itself to any further restrictions,” Agsten says. “But those boards are more in control of their financial futures.”

More from The Art Newspaper


13 Sep 13
16:59 CET


As a museum professional, kudos to them for fighting to stay alive! It's so easy to snub our noses and say "Axe the arts, they aren't needed anyway!" anytime fiscal problems arise- we did that to our school systems and look at the negative impact that has already had on our kids. If we can sell museum collections, why not sell the sports teams and their stadiums to cities that can "better" support them? Why not sell the zoo animals to other organizations who can "better" care for them? Why not ship out poor families to cities that can better accomodate them? That all sound ridiculous, right? Well that's how foolish closing down a museum (that probably already wasn't getting much from it's parent organization to begin with...) sounds to those of us that still appreciate the theraputic and academic benefits of the arts. Rita Moore, you live near the SMITHSONIAN, which is partly funded by our tax dollars...because we are in a recession, should we sell off thier artifacts too?

9 Sep 13
17:51 CET


The high-and-mighty rhetoric of the transparently self-interested stance of the art and museum communities in the face of real human suffering is appalling. If selling off some art--to institutions and individuals able to afford and appreciate it -- helps alleviate the crushing poverty and hardship facing Detroit's people, it is obscene to argue that safeguarding the art for some abstract value or hypothetical future is more important. Especially in an age in which the museum profession spends an inordinate percentage of its time paying lip service to reaching "underserved" commmunities through programming, the tone-deaf insensitivity of opposing deaccession is simply appalling. Half of the art in the DIA collection probably came from European aristocratic estates broken up after unification and revolution in the late 19th century anyhow. Art moves with prosperity. What's happening in Detroit is not an anomaly, it's another chapter in art history.

5 Sep 13
22:25 CET


One would assume that the DIA is accredited by the American Association of Museums (AAM) and that its director is a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). Both organizations ascribe to policy that requires that proceeds from objects deaccessioned and sold from permanent collections be used solely for collection acquisition purposes. Should the City of Detroit violate these policies, the AAM could rescind the DIA's accreditation, making new acquisitions even more difficult.

5 Sep 13
16:59 CET


Why not simply promise donors that their gifts of art works will never be sold or disposed of except to another museum. That would help ensure that art objects in museum collections are not monetized as well as cause curators to think long and hard about accepting any donation. Whether boards or staff will abdicate their own nearly divine right of collection control is not likely even when institutional integrity at stake.

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this