Far from bankrupt: Michigan art museums thrive despite economic woes

To hear John Henry, director of the Flint Institute of Arts, tell it, there once existed a near-magical time in that city’s history, when its blue-collar roots lived in harmony with a yearning for beauty and creativity somewhere off the assembly line.

That was the era when Charles Stewart Mott, the city’s two-time mayor and philanthropist, donated acreage for a cultural center, where Flint residents could find music, theater, science, history, art and education on one campus. It was the birthplace of continuing education, born of the idea that line workers should be able to shake off the mental torpor of their jobs with, say, a ceramics class.

“There were ceramics classes that started at midnight,” said Henry, who lives today in a very different Flint. The downsizing of the auto industry sapped its strength and drained its population, but its cultural center – and its art museum – remains.

“No city our size in the country has this,” said Henry of the eight institutions that make up the center. “We’re doing collectively $12-13 million a year in programming, much of which is free or subsidized.”

Which may go to show that even in a blue-collar city in a blue-collar state, there is still something special about art – even as that art is potentially imperiled by cities’ fiscal implosions.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is gathering most of the media attention paid to the state’s cultural sector these days as the DIA works furiously to protect its assets from being swept up in Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy proceedings. The foreboding publicity has been good for business this summer. DIA Director Graham Beal notes that attendance was 10,000 in a recent summer week, compared to a more typical 3,000-4,000, and just 2,000 two years ago. Whether visitors are coming because the museum is in the news or because they fear its collection is in peril doesn’t really matter to Beal.

“We’re hopping,” he said. “It’s the power of free and the power of advertising.”

Since a 2012 tax millage gave the DIA a $23 million annual funding stream, admission has been free to residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, and the museum has seen attendance rise by 48 percent, to 594,000 in the just-completed fiscal year. Friday-night live music programming and Sunday family events draw crowds, and a new “living room” space with wifi and food is drawing visitors to use the museum the way they might a Starbucks.

Michigan’s other art museums appear to have capably weathered the recession. In Kalamazoo, director Jim Bridenstine vowed that no one would lose a job or health insurance because of the drop in contributions that came with the economic downturn. Everyone took a salary cut – Bridenstine settled on the formula of cutting all salaries by a percentage determined by the first digit in an employee’s annual salary – but now they’re coming back. In Grand Rapids, a new building opening in 2007, and Art Prize’s debut in 2009, kept bodies moving through the front doors. Even Muskegon, whose museum director describes it as “a scrappy town on its best day,” is finishing an 18-month endowment drive and its staff expects to reach its $7.5 million goal easily.

The Cultural Data Project,  which collects financial and other information about the arts and culture sector in 12 states around the country, puts Michigan’s 427  member organizations’ earned revenue at over $417 million, and attendance at all those venues at over 15 million. While there is no separate data for the art-museum sector, their attribute the institutions’ health to a variety of factors, but mostly strong community support and respect for their deep roots.

The Muskegon Museum of Art, for instance, opened in 1912, “the first building in a city of this size built specifically to hold art,” said Judith Hayner, its director for a decade. Endowed by lumber baron Charles Hackley via the local public schools, the museum has seen the end of the lumbering era, the rise and fall of industrialization and still survives, thanks to a dedicated core of supporters and what Hayner calls aggressive programming.

“We don’t have incidental foot traffic, so we have to create and draw people to us,” she said. The museum puts on “about 15” changing exhibits a year, an ambitious schedule that gives residents a reason to stop by more than once or twice a year. With attendance of about 30,000 annually, “in a county of 171,000 people, I don’t think that’s bad,” Hayner said.

Across the state in East Lansing, Michael Rush, director of the newly opened Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum is singing a similar tune. The contemporary-art institution will conclude its first year in a striking new building on the Michigan State campus this fall. An “optimistic” annual attendance goal of 100,000 was reached in nine months.

“We’ve had visitors from every state in the union and 75 countries,” Rush said. The museum has seen $90,000 in facility rentals, and even the café store is making money.

In Kalamazoo, Bridenstine credits the museum’s associated art school with keeping foot traffic up and programming that strives to reach a variety of visitors. And even its location in a mid-size city doesn’t hurt. The DIA’s Beal calls the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts the second-best museum in the state, after his own.

“The best compliments I get are from colleagues,” said Bridenstine. “They come expecting something nice, but they’re really surprised by how nice.”

If there is a subset of Michigan museums that aren't doing so well, it would include the Art Center of Battle Creek, which strives to be both a destination for art lovers and a community school for artists. Making it on a $275,000 budget, it has one full-time staff member – executive director Linda Holderbaum. The art center "gets by," but offers more "cultural" exhibits than its larger peers; it's ready to open the doors on a show devoted to Star Wars.

"One of my board members wondered why we were showing this," said Holderbaum. "It's a valid question. My answer is that it changed the entire film industry. And if you told George Lucas it wasn’t art, he’d strangle you."
The art center serves a different niche, Holderbaum admits, due to its smaller size. Serious art lovers would be more likely to travel to Kalamazoo or another city.

In the state's largest city, none of the art-world specialists expect the DIA to be hollowed out by Detroit’s fiscal problems, although the perceived threat is being taken seriously. Muskegon’s museum, for example, has always functioned as a part of the Muskegon Public Schools, whose board of education erected the building and organized the collection in the early 20th century.

Now in its 102nd year, with its museum endowment flush, the Muskegon schools are operating in a deficit, which raises the specter of emergency management in the future and the potential for a similar threat to its collection.

Although the museum has a separate ownership board, it is taking no chances. The institution is going forward with plans to separate entirely from the schools in 2014.

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Thu, 08/22/2013 - 10:19am
Other than the mention that the Muskegon School is associated with the museum in that city, the article gave no mention as to how all the other museums are owned. Was the purchase of all their holdings funded by a benefactor, the city or some other government entity, or a private concern? The DIA has apparently used Detroit City assets to purchase some of it's holdings or perhaps even the building itself. If so, it would take a very cruel person to say that none of the DIA should be touched while pension plans receive a partial gutting. Those holdings that were not purchased with City funds should be exempt from any talk of being sold.
Thu, 08/22/2013 - 10:43am
The Broad museum at MSU was mostly financed by Eli Broad himself with some public fundraising as well. I couldn't give you the exact breakdown on that but the information might be out there someplace. It is an interesting looking building to say the least but was heavily criticized for its location among the more traditional looking buildings on north campus, it does sort of stick out like a sore thumb in that regard. If you like modern art it is worth a visit.
Thu, 08/22/2013 - 11:54am
Why should the DIA be held sacrosanct? It's not like if the art works to be sold were going to tossed into a fire and burned. Very likely they would end up finding their way into other museums to be enjoyed by other city's residents. How can one say that once a piece of art is in one place it must stay there forever? Further paying or not paying bond holders has it's costs also, how many retirees, nursing home payments or college educations are being paid by these bonds and so what are the ramifications if they aren't paid? We as voters and residents are all responsible for the leaders we elect. The fact that Detroit insists on electing incompetent or corrupt leaders or Brooks Patterson made a stupid deal and gave county money to the DIA with no security is something he should explain to his voters and not stiff the bond holders.
Gene Tang
Thu, 08/22/2013 - 3:09pm
I was disappointed that the Dennos Museum in Traverse City was not mentioned.
Sun, 08/25/2013 - 6:50pm
To Matt: Sorry, but most likely the DIA collections would not find their way into other museums. Museums do not have the money nowadays to compete with Middle Eastern oil barons, Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, newly rich Chinese moguls, and American hedge fund managers. Most likely, the DIA's treasures would be bought by those types of people. The public may never see them again An example: van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet, bought by a private collector for $78 million back around 1990. No one knows exactly where it is today. It was bought by a Japanese man who joked that he would bury it with his dead body, but may now have left the country.
Tue, 08/27/2013 - 10:07am
As another comment has pointed out, the likelihood that DIA's collection will end up in other cities is very, very low. Museums with the budget to purchase the masterpieces in DIA's collection already have comparable works in their own collections, and museums whose collections could benefit from the boost most likely don't have the endowments to cover their acquisitions. Another point to consider is any money acquired through selling or deaccessioning the collection will not end up benefiting the city but will go to creditors. Finally, to flood the market with museum-quality pieces will surely bring prices down, while the collection is estimated to be worth $2B, it's very doubtful that amount would be recouped.