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DIA supporters seek $170 million more to save Detroit's art and pensions

Part of the Diego Rivera mural "Detroit Industry" at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The Detroit Institute of Arts wants to strike a "grand bargain" to save itself.

This next story is a call to anybody with $170 million to spare.

And a major fondness for art.

By now, you’ve heard about the group of philanthropists who’ve raised $330 million to strike a “grand bargain” with Detroit’s creditors.

Their goal is to raise half a billion dollars to save city-owned art at the Detroit Institute of Arts from being sold off in the city’s bankruptcy.

But that grand bargain may still require a small miracle.

Fair or not, bankruptcy pitting art against pensioners

This part of the Detroit bankruptcy has been framed like a sort of Sophie's choice.

On one hand, you've got pensioners who are owed millions, maybe billions of dollars that the city says it just can't pay them.

They're people like 86-year-old Juanita Hernandez, who says she'll lose her house if her pension gets cut. 

"Then definitely, I'm going to have to move out, and I know I cannot live on the retirement money that I'm going to be getting."

On the other hand, you've got the the DIA, with its world-class art collection worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The museum’s been a bedrock of Detroit culture for decades.

Remember the peppy 1970s TV commercials for the DIA? The ones that seemed to operate on the strategy that, perhaps, people did not realize the museum had art?


Between a rock and a hard place, a plan takes shape

So people don't want to see the art sold off.

But as labor lawyer Bruce Miller says, no one wants to tell people like Juanita: "Your pension is going bust because this asset that's sitting on the wall, that I'm enjoying, is not being used to alleviate their suffering."

So back in the fall, the guys who are mediating the bankruptcy negotiations, Judge Gerald Rosen and attorney Eugene Driker came up with this idea: What if they found a different way to raise the money the city would get from selling the art?

That's around $500 million. Not exactly an easy sum to put together.  

But if they could do it, the reasoning goes, they could give that money to the city to help pay Detroit pensioners, and save the art.

The optimism just may be catching

"Well it struck me, reading that (idea), that that was going to be a bit of a hard sell," says Dr. Paul Schapp, a retired Wayne State professor who made his fortune by starting a successful chemical company.

He read about this "grand bargain" in the newspaper, and he was thinking, "These guys are gonna need some help getting people on board," Schapp says. "And so I composed an email, ran it by my wife, of course – pledging $5 million dollars toward that goal, that grand bargain."

And that was kind of a tipping point.

In a matter of months, the fund had $330 million dollars in pledges, ranging from big foundations like Ford and Kresge and the Knight foundation to small donations from people all over the country.

Mariam Noland is president of the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, which is organizing these donations.

"We have now received contributions into the fund from Maine, Oregon, Illinois, Florida, and even one from Scotland." 

Grand bargain still has big issues to figure out

So, break out the party horns, right?

Well, hang on. They still need to raise $170 million more.

And the museum officials would reeeaally like to see the state to chip in some of that money.

"We hope that they see $330 million on the table, to which they can hopefully contribute," says Annemarie Erickson, executive vice president of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Problem No. 2 is that the grand bargainers want the DIA to become a private museum – so that this kind of threat can't happen again.

But that would be complicated, because the museum gets $230 million dollars over 10 years from millages, paid by local taxpayers in metro Detroit.

Erickson says, yes, it's complex, but not impossible – public money goes to private non-profits all the time.

And more to the point, she says the DIA can’t survive without it.

"Quite frankly, without the millage support from the three counties, this museum could not continue to operate," Erickson says.

Building the political will in Lansing for the state to fork over millions is an uphill battle.

So is smoothing out millage matters with local counties who may take the big upheavals as a chance to back out of their 10-year deal.

But most urgently, for this plan to work, that $170 million needs to come from somewhere. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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