The city of Detroit ran out of tax revenues to pay bills in 2013. Governor Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr as the city’s Emergency Manager giving him almost total control over all financial matters. Shortly after his appointment, Kevyn Orr requested bankruptcy protection from the local federal court so that Detroit could be freed from paying its debts. Many assumed the city had numerous valuable assets that could be sold to pay bond holders, pensioners and other obligations: a water and sewerage system that served almost all of southeast Michigan, a system for distributing electricity, more than 100 parks, a share of the tunnel that linked Detroit to Canada, many revenue generating parking lots and three museums in addition to the Detroit Institute of Art. It soon became clear that the only assets that could be sold quickly for cash were the masterpieces in the Detroit Institute of Art, many of them works that the city purchased in the 1920s when Director Valentier visit Europe to acquire works for the walls of his Institute
The Detroit Institute of Art is the successor to the Detroit Museum of Art which was the city’s first art gallery, it was founded, primarily by James E. Scripps who published the Detroit News. In 1881, he spent five months touring western Europe and was exceptionally impressed by the classical art that he viewed. After he returned, his assistant at the Detroit News, William Brearley, organized a large art exposition by borrowing works of arts from leading US art museums and collectors. Brearley then devoted much effort to raising the funds needed for a museum of art in Detroit. The largest single donor was James Scripps, but other prosperous Detroit individuals contributed funds. The Detroit Museum of Art was chartered in April, 1885. Three years later they opened their galleries in a large Romanesque building at the intersection of East Jefferson and Hastings, a building that no longer stands. I have seen pictures of that structure. It looked quite like a medieval castle with impressive towers and huge stone archways at the entrance. Scripps and a few other Detroit residents contributed substantial collections of their own European art works to this museum. The individual who had, arguably, the most impressive personal collection of art in the nation in 1900 was Detroit resident Charles Lang Freer. I have read that he made minimal contributions from his collection to the Detroit Museum. He left many more to the National Gallery in Washington. Perhaps Scripps had doubts about the seriousness of the Detroit Museum since prosperous donors were apparently able to “borrow” classical work from the gallery for display in their homes. There are also stories that Freer worked very actively to have a monument closely resembling the Washington Monument erected on the southern tip of Belle Isle to commemorating the 200th anniversary of Antoine Cadillac’s founding of the city. Apparently, the city’s financial elite offered Freer little support in his attempts to memorialize Detroit’s entering its third century and this may led him to conclude that a Detroit museum should not house his marvelous collection. He had offered it to the University of Michigan in about 1908 but they turned down his gift since their administrators did not have funds to erect an art museum in Ann Arbor. The building on the Ann Arbor campus now called the art museum was, at that time, a veterans memorial budiling. Other explanations may also explain why Freer’s marvelous collection of unique art did not remain in Detroit after his death. To be sure, Freer donated some art to the city’s museum.
The City Beautiful movement that emerged from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago led many cities to develop strategies to make them attractive and beautiful. Of course, this was an immense challenge in an era of steam trains, coal heating for homes and factories, and horses for local transportation. Under Mayor Brietmeyer in about 1911, a committee was appointed to suggest how to beautify Detroit, a committee that included Daniel Burnham who was the originator of the City Beautiful movement. One of their major suggestions was the creation of a Cultural District on Woodward just north of Warren. This is the district that is now home to three of the city’s most beautiful buildings: the Detroit Public Library designed by Gilbert Cass and opened in 1921, the University of Michigan’s Horace Rackham Building designed by the Harley, Ellington and Day firm and opened in 1941 and the Detroit Institute of Art.
In 1919, the private Detroit Museum of Art gave its art and its building on East Jefferson to the City of Detroit. The Detroit Museum of Art was having trouble raising funds from donors and the city, at that time, was very prosperous. So they turned their art over to the city in return for an annual subsidy. The city established an Art Commission with Ralph Booth as chair. They were charged with building a new gallery in the Cultural Center and administering the art collection. Paul Philippe Cret was selected to design the building. Cret, born in Lyon in 1876, was trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then accepted a job as a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He designed the impressively large Beaux-Arts, Italian Renaissance building that you see. The cornerstone was laid in 1923 and, in October, 1927, the building was opened. Cret created quite a few distinguished and extremely well known buildings that are still cherished. Perhaps the Detroit Institute of Art and the Federal Reserve Building (1937) but now called the Marriner S. Eccles Building on Constitution Avenue in Washington are his best known. He also designed the iconic University of Texas Tower in Austin (1931), the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington (1932) and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge connecting Philadelphia and Camden (1926).
The Detroit Institute of Art is the fifth largest art museum in the United States. It has a very extensive multicultural array of arts from all parts of the world and spanning the interval from prehistory to the Twentieth First century. The key figure in the development of the current collection was William Valentiner, an art historian and scholar from Berlin, who served as director from 1924 through 1945. One of his most outstanding decisions was to recruit Diego Rivera, a Mexican Communist who came to Detroit to paint the world famous murals that decorate the main entryway. Simultaneously, Valentiner recruited Edsel Ford as Rivera’s generous benefactor. Known as “Detroit Industry,” the colorful Rivera murals may still be the nation’s most famous and provocative populist art some 75 years after their completion.
The Detroit Institute of Art expanded in the post-World War II era with the addition of a new wing in 1966 and another just five years later. The city's annual stipend to support the Detroit Institute of Art ended in the 1970. The state of Michigan stepped in with a stipend but the financial troubles of the state led to a cut back in those appropriations so the Institute had to rely pretty much on its own resources and endowment. The gallery was closed for much of the summer and fall of 2007 so that the interior could be remodeled and revised. Architect Michael Graves added about 31,000 square feet of display space.
The area in and around Detroit’s Cultural Center has undergone much development and renewal in the last fifteen years. The Detroit Institute of Art devoted $128 million to the renovation that was completed in late 2007. Thanks to a donation from the estate of Josephine Ford, the College for Creative Studies became the most richly endowed art college in the nation. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History opened in 1998 in a distinctively attractive building designed by Detroit’s Sims-Verner firm. In 2005, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit opened just a couple of blocks away in the strikingly white Garfield Building that Albert Kahn designed in 1908. Detroit’s Cultural Center has undergone very substantial change in the last few years.
Architect: Paul Phillippe Cret
Architectural Style: Beaux Arts and Italian Renaissance
Date of Completion: 1927
City of Detroit Local Historic District: The Detroit Institute of Art is included in the Cultural Center Historic District
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: The Detroit Institute of Art is included within the Cultural Center Historic District. P 25056
National Register of Historic Sites: Listed November 21, 19
Book describing history of the institute: William H. Peck, Detroit Institute of Arts: A Brief History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.
Use in 2015: Art Gallery
Photograph: Ren Farley; March 28, 2005
Description updated: December, 2015