In His Own Words: Graham W.J. Beal
The director of Detroit Institute of Arts opens up about the future of his institution
Art has always been important to me and, as a child, I always wanted to be a painter. I turned to art history when I failed to get into any of the universities in England that offered studio classes but was accepted by Manchester University, that didn’t—I can take a hint.
After a graduate degree in 17th-century art from London University’s Courtauld Institute and marriage to an American, I moved to the U.S. I gravitated to contemporary art, working as a curator at Walker Art Center and SFMOMA. As director at Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, I began to grasp how removed our art historical framework was from what general visitors expected from art museums. Two museums later, the result is the visitor-centered installations at the DIA.
The Museum Today
One of the most striking things to come out of the extensive research conducted over the years leading up to the reinstallation of our collections was the degree to which general visitors looked to the museum as a place of solace and confirmation. Call it what you will—a tiny vacation, a reaffirmation of the good in humankind, the reassurance found in “Cultural DNA”—people visit art museums to find out about themselves. But to pursue this quest, visitors need first to feel in control. Introducing them to the specialist terminology/jargon of the connoisseur/art historian, more often than not, has the opposite effect. “What does this have to do with me?” is the basic question people are asking themselves. Explaining that the term “Baroque” derives from the Portuguese word for a deformed pearl is not a good place to start an exploration of the profound faith and love of life that lie at the root of Rubens’ art.
Detroit is in permanent crisis, so current economic and political conditions are par for the course. We wanted to make our collections accessible to all and the institution a place to visit regardless of special exhibitions. As the great majority of our visitors are from our region, we want them to feel a sense of ownership, to regard the museum as their proverbial “Town Square.” After 18 months of the New DIA, I think most agree that we have done this without unduly disrupting the more traditional gallery experience.
Apart from its great collection, the DIA is known for its perennial financial problems, and, despite the great generosity of many, these remain as bad as ever. Such problems were not the driving force behind the changes; they stemmed from the convictions and passion for art shared by many of us. We hope, though, by reaffirming the value of the institution, we will eventually be in a position to fix those financial problems permanently.