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Facing criticism of pay hikes, DIA's mistake was turning deaf ears to the real world

If you love the Detroit Institute of Arts, and supported the “Grand Bargain” to save it, then you should be grateful that what surfaced this week wasn’t known a few months ago.

Specifically, the whopping raises and bonuses paid to Graham Beal, the director of the DIA, and Annmarie Erickson, the museum’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Two years ago, Beal, whose compensation is over half a million dollars a year, got a 13% raise. Erickson, who got a promotion and new responsibilities, got a 36% raise.

She makes close to $400,000. And both have been getting hefty annual bonuses, $30,000 a year or more. What makes this especially jarring is that this happened as they were pleading with voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to tax themselves to support the museum. They did not reveal this then.

Nor did Beal nor Erickson volunteer to take a symbolic pay cut during the darkest days of the bankruptcy, when the city’s creditors were demanding they sell off the art.

When it comes to sensitivity to their city, the museum’s officials seem just as callous.

I voted for that millage; I supported the Grand Bargain – which, by the way, is not a completely done deal until and unless Judge Steven Rhodes signs off on the city’s “plan of adjustment” and allows Detroit to emerge from bankruptcy. But what the museum did here was tone-deaf and politically stupid.

Now, it’s not that Beal and Erickson are overpaid. By standards of the industry, they aren’t. The director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art makes more, and that is not nearly as fine a place.

But Indianapolis is not on the verge of total collapse. I never imagined quoting L. Brooks Patterson, the brawling, sometimes profane Oakland County executive, on anything concerning art.

However, in this case, he put it perfectly, especially in terms of public perception, saying, “The optics of it stink.”

“The public rallied around the DIA and this is the thanks they got?”  Patterson called the raises an insult to the taxpayers that “ranks up there with Marie Antoinette’s ‘let them eat cake.’”  

Patterson, by the way, was a big supporter of the art museum. Mark Hackel, the less flamboyant Macomb County executive, said, “you have to deal with public perception, and this will not be forgotten.” Museum officials, however, still seem not to get it.

Gene Gargaro, the DIA’s chairman, defended the raises, saying “they’ve earned it.” Beal and Erickson ducked the press. And we only found this out, by the way, because the museum just released its tax returns for that fiscal year.

We don’t know what they make today. Now it may well be that the leadership they provided was worth far more than their salaries. Indeed, there’s some evidence of that. But in the real world, perception is not only often as important as reality, it is reality.

For months, I have been appalled by those who would loot the DIA. But when it comes to sensitivity to their city, the museum’s officials seem just as callous. Had this been known earlier, it might well have blown up the whole Grand Bargain. If you don’t want to call that irresponsibly risky, you’ll have to find your own word for it.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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