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Monday, May 16 • 3:00pm - 3:30pm
(General Session: Confronting the Unexpected) Preservation of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) Collection: Protecting Art at Risk

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I thought I was well versed in preparing for disasters and confronting the unexpected in conservation. I treated water-damaged books and panel paintings after the 1966 flood in Florence, Italy; had disaster mitigation training; had responded to emergency situations at the museum as part of the DIA’s emergency team; and conducted disaster preparedness workshops for other cultural organizations. As chief conservator, I successfully developed special dust mitigation strategies to protect the building and collection during the museum’s 6-year $158.2 million multi-phased Master Plan Capital Improvements and Building Program. All my cultural property protection experience was called upon after the governor of Michigan appointed an emergency manager(EM) for the City of Detroit on March 14, 2013. The City filed for bankruptcy on July 18, 2013, the largest municipality in the US to enter Chapter 9. Municipally owned, the DIA was being operated by the Founders Society, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3), through a 1997 Operating Agreement with the City. The art became at risk on September 8, 2013, when the EM asked for the portion of the collection purchased by the City to be evaluated. Creditors asked the judge to take steps to sell the museum’s treasures. The DIA responded that it holds the collection in trust for the public and is not subject to sale in order to pay the City's bills. The Detroit Museum of Art was founded in 1885, but the collection was donated to the City by the Founders Society in 1919, when the City agreed to build a new museum in the newly established cultural district. This gift is etched on the marble façade: “Dedicated by the People of Detroit to the Knowledge and Enjoyment of Art.” Public funds were appropriated for operations and the purchase of artwork. The majority of the City purchases were made in the 1920s and 30s, and included some of its most iconic works. I was asked by the director to conduct research on the collection not only for the evaluators, but for our lawyers to help defend the collection. I cannot reiterate the importance of access to files such as registration, donor/dealer, curatorial, conservation reports, archives, etc. For example, while reading the original minutes from the archives, I found discrepancies regarding ownership that were not reflected in the collections database. The City would purchase an artwork and then some time later, the Founders Society or another patron would repay the City that amount so they could become the donor. To protect our collection, Curatorial staff accompanied Christie's at all times and Collections management set up a room for examination to limit their access to collections storage. The presentation will discuss the internal processes that were created; the importance of conserving, digitizing records, and making them searchable; and how the Grand Bargain, the agreement to fund pensions and prevent the sale of the DIA artwork was achieved. As of 2015, the DIA is a nonprofit corporation aka Founders Society Detroit Institute of Arts. The collection was saved and is no longer at risk.

Speakers
avatar for Barbara Heller

Barbara Heller

Director and Conservator, Special Projects, Detroit Institute of Arts
Barbara Heller is the director and conservator of special projects at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where she has worked since 1976. Hired as the head paintings conservator, she was promoted to chief conservator in 1985 and assumed her current position in 2009. Barbara was formerly paintings conservator at the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, where she completed her training. She was an intern for the Committee to Rescue Italian Art, working on... Read More →


Monday May 16, 2016 3:00pm - 3:30pm
Room 210 AB/EF


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