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Graham Beal: Telling stories with art

— June 2013

Associated media

Graham Beal with Sharon Madison, one of the directors of the Friends of African and African-American Art

Graham Beal of the Detroit Institute of Arts tells Janet Tyson why Detroit residents volunteered to pay tax to support his gallery

Even as the city of Detroit teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, one of its institutions recently received an almost-unimaginable gift: voters in the three counties surrounding the Detroit Institute of Arts elected to tax themselves, to provide it with an operating budget for ten years, during which time museum officials will focus on raising an operations endowment.

Chartered in 1885, the DIA ranks with the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Cleveland Museum of Art, among other top museums in the United States. Its collection includes such signal works as Diego Rivera’s monumental Detroit Industry fresco cycle; James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s notorious Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket; John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark; and Pieter Bruegel’s Wedding Dance. Focused groups of objects include European armor, African Art and a collection of Islamic works, which spans the seventh century through the present day.

When Graham W.J. Beal was hired as director 1999, however, the museum was operating with curtailed hours and closed galleries, and its physical plant required extensive renovation. During his tenure, Beal has implemented changes that reinvigorated support for the DIA and laid a foundation for the millage-tax vote.

Beal, born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, recently spoke with independent art historian Janet Tyson about his career and ways of connecting art with communities.

Janet Tyson: How did you become involved with art history?

Graham Beal: Well, I’m sort of a failed painter. I applied to six universities, five of which had studio courses, one of which did not. The only one that accepted me was the one that did not: Manchester University. From there, I went on to the Courtauld and I became an art historian. But I retained a love of the object and wanted to work in museums.

My first job was with Sheffield City Art Galleries, as academic assistant to the director. Then I met and married an American, and moved to the States. I went back to England briefly, to the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia.

JT: You’ve worked in the USA for the most part – in St Louis, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Omaha, Los Angeles and, lastly, Detroit. The Joslyn Art Museum, in Omaha, was your first directorship.

GB: I wanted a directorship where I could rehearse, as it were. The Joslyn is a mid-sized museum with a sort of un-self-selected public. While there, I worked with Norman Foster on an addition to a wonderful art deco building and, as part of that, completely re-installed the collections. I also became involved in docent training: I saw they wanted emotional engagement but our response was to put an intellectual screen in front of them, effectively expect them to become art historians.

JT: You seem to have opened the door to an emotional connection while maintaining historical context.

GB: Our approach is based on shared human experience. If you look at our installations and their themes, they all say that this human need required the manufacturing of this object.

JT: What about art objects that are independent of specific need? How do you relate them to common-ground experience?

GB: That is something we still are addressing. By the end of the 19th century, art was almost entirely self-referential. Our research has told us, clearly, that the public is not interested in art about art. So, the contemporary galleries still are less accessible to the general public. For the rest of the museum collections, though, curators worked on teams with other colleagues, who were not art specialists, to find out what was interesting to them. It was deliberately breaking the tyranny of connoisseurship and art history.

JT: You’ve addressed education, collection and infrastructure as they interact, and used each to support the others. Did you see these opportunities when you considered Detroit?

GB: I saw a few opportunities. One was to try something new with installation, and do so with one of the country’s greatest collections. When other museums tried new angles, they were invariably accused of doing it from weakness. I sort of shudder at the hubris, but no one could accuse us of doing anything from weakness in these collections. There may be art historical gaps, but we can still tell a lot of stories to the general public.

JT: Response to the reinstallation was very enthusiastic.

GB: It was more successful, honestly, than anything I could have imagined. The ultimate proof was when people voted to tax themselves to keep us around.

We also chipped away at the idea that the museum was a place that belonged to a particular type of person. A very early ad campaign featured the character of a young African-American man, named ‘Art’, who lived in this building. Then we did a television programme on local PBS that showed how we did our business – how we acquired works of art, how we conserved them. And we carefully experimented with interpretation of the permanent collection by treating it as a source for 90 small, special exhibitions.

JT: How have you measured the results of your efforts?

GB: We set up a permanent, full-time, two-person evaluation department.  Everything we do in the galleries is based on their work.

JT: You also have staff whose job is to stop visitors in the galleries.

GB: If people come in, glide through, then leave, thinking they’ve seen it all, they’re less likely to come back than if you can stop them. So, yes, our goal became to stop people, engage them, let them realize they’ve seen only a bit. We call it tracking and timing.

JT: When did you have the idea of a millage [local] tax?

GB: We were going towards our grand re-opening in November, 2007. Everything was going to look marvellous, but I felt I was driving off of a cliff at high speed. Within a small executive group, we knew we were unsustainable.

We did a lot of strategic planning and did a poll, in 2009, that indicated we had support for a tax. By the end of 2010, we obtained state legislation that would put the millage vote on the ballot in three counties.

JT: Do millage results reflect your engaging non-traditional audiences?

GB: Yes. One of the first things I did here was to establish the Center for African-American Art. It had tremendous resonance with the African-American community, for whom the museum means something. Putting their culture in the centre of an institution, in galleries, and emphasizing those things in publicity, was important for that community. We also focus on Arab-American and Latin-American communities.

We focus on doing whatever we can, in whatever the circumstances and whatever we’ve programmed, to underscore that the public owns this building, this collection.

JT: Have you added members from those communities to your board and your staff?

GB: Not nearly as much as we would like. Our African-American population on the board has got to be infinitely higher than any other major, general museum. But finding the right individuals, who also have the time, can be quite difficult.

JT: Do you think museums in other countries share any challenges you’ve addressed here?

GB: I used to think the idea that we can’t go on doing the old stuff was an Anglo-American phenomenon. But I was invited to be in a symposium in 2006 – celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Vatican Museums – with Neil MacGregor, with the directors of the Cairo Museum and the Topkapi Palace Museum, and others.

We were all saying the same thing. We’ve built the corpus and collected things like mad. But things are becoming less important and experiences are becoming more important.

There also were professors from German, Italian, Austrian, French universities talking about the end of art history – that art history must integrate itself into other disciplines. So we do need to change. But what’s good about that, that we can use?

JT: You’re mentioning several things I’d love to ask you more about, but I know you’re pressed for time. Thank you so much for talking with us.

GB: My pleasure.


Janet Stiles Tyson
Spring Lake, Michigan, USA
Independent art historian

Background info

Graham Beal has written a guide to the collections held by the Detroit Institute of Arts, American Beauty: Paintings from the Detroit Institute of Arts 1770-1920. 128pp., published by Scala, ISBN 978-1857592856.

Our selection of images includes some frescos by the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, husband of the painter Frida Kahlo. (see our interview with artist Judy Chicago, where she discusses Kahlo's work, Cassone July 2011.). He worked on a number of 'New Deal' projects in the USA in the 1930s.

Editor's notes

Janet Tyson has sent further news, since submitting this interview. On 24 May 2013 The New York Times published a story claiming that the City of Detroit might press for sale of collections held by Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), in order to pay off billions of dollars in debt. The Institute will fight any such attempt. Unfortunately, there are always going to be people who regard art as just another form of investment.

DIA has subsequently released the following statement.

The DIA strongly believes that the museum and the City hold the museum’s art collection in trust for the public.  The DIA manages and cares for that collection according to exacting standards required by the public trust, our profession and the Operating Agreement with the City.   According to those standards, art cannot be sold generate funds for any purpose other than to enhance the collection.  We remain confident that the City and the emergency financial manager will continue to support the museum in its compliance with those standards, and together we will continue to preserve and protect the cultural heritage of Detroit.

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