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
By Julia Halperin and Helen Stoilas. Web only
Published online: 04 September 2013
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.”
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