A major event coming up in Detroit’s art scene in a month is that Graham Beal will be stepping down as Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) next week. Beal had more than a decade with the museum when, in 2012, he publicly appealed to voters in Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties to approve a tax increase to support the museum while he silently accepted an increase to his salary, a salary that was already much higher than the base pay for the mayor of Detroit.
Thanks to the millage, tri-county taxpayers now provide 70% of the DIA’s budget, but the museum’s governing board has failed to deliver on the vague promise of future transparency when the news of the scandal first broke. There has been mention of an executive search firm being hired to look for Beal’s successor, Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press reported in January, but no mention of whether the taxpayers will have any say on the potential successors nor whether the new director will be in any way accountable to the taxpayers.
On more than one occasion, Eugene Gargaro, chair of the DIA board, has said that a large salary is needed to attract top talent. But a large enough salary also attracts people without integrity. It has also been said that the job requires fundraising skills. But fundraising for whom? Beal has proven effective at convincing the DIA board to give him a raise, bonuses and loans. His best idea for the DIA seems to have been convincing voters to approve a tax increase.
Others have taken to comparing the DIA director’s salary to the salaries of directors at other museums. But some jobs should be done for reasons nobler than comparing paychecks. A general in the United States Army does not worry that a Canadian general probably makes more money than he does. Leading soldiers is about loyalty to one’s country; if a soldier is more interested in making money he should be a mercenary. Similarly, leading a museum staff is about safeguarding artistic treasures for the public trust.
Of course the job of DIA director is one that needs to pay well. Something like an annual salary of $200,000 is less than half of what Beal gets, but is still a salary that is considered “high income” by the United States Census Bureau and it still would attract qualified people like Jef Bourgeau, considered by Jim Pallas to be one of the art giants of Detroit. “Yes, of course,” said Bourgeau when asked if he would accept a hypothetical offer to succeed Beal for $200,000 a year.
As Elena Herrada, director of Museo del Norte has pointed out, the DIA has a lot of employees at the poverty line. The entire salary structure at the DIA needs to be revised: executive pay should be slashed, while pay for the staff that does the actual work of running the museum should be increased. This is probably what the taxpayers would say if the DIA board bothered to ask.
The DIA is up and running not because some guy is getting paid half a million dollars to take credit for the work of his subordinates. The DIA is up and running because of people at the ticket counter at the door, because of the janitors keeping the museum clean, because of security guards keeping the museum safe, etc. And also because of volunteers like Vito Valdez an Lee DeVito, who in giving of their precious time to the museum have displayed the selflessness Beal so sorely lacks.
The next director of the DIA should be someone who sets an example of personal fiscal responsibility and ascetic self-discipline. Residents of the tri-county area ought to call their elected officials and tell them they don’t want another crook as director of the DIA.