Mellon Foundation Steps Up, Pledges $10 Million to Protect the Detroit Institute of Arts's Assets

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has pledged a $10 million grant to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in support of a "Grand Bargain" that will keep the museum's assets safe from liquidation.

This is obviously a piece of good news in the ongoing saga that is Detroit's precarious road to fiscal stability. And calling it precarious is definitely an understatement. As most American know, the city entered into bankruptcy in July of 2013. What Americans didn't know, much less expect, was that creditors would go after the DIA's assets to help pay down the debt.

The very idea of selling off the museum's pieces of art, which creditors argued wasn't an "essential municipal asset," was a chilling proposition. But later in the year, the city's emergency financial manager, Kevyn Orr, agreed that the DIA's holdings were fair game. Then in December Christie's auction house conducted an assessment of the DIA's holdings and concluded that a fire sale would net between $454 million and $867 million. 

The writing was on the wall: The DIA's holdings would soon be auctioned off, and the idea alarmed not just museum professionals, but civic-minded people everywhere. After all, if artwork owned by the city is deemed "non-essential," who's to say that a city park wasn't, either? What would stop municipalities from auctioning off a plot of green space to a private company? The slope, as they say, was slippery.

A consortium of national and local foundations including the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation agreed and responded in kind. Early this year, they pledged $330 million to prevent the city from selling off part of the museum's collections in bankruptcy proceedings. Art lovers everywhere applauded, yet also remained skeptical, cautiously waiting for more details to emerge.

All of this brings us to recent news that the the Mellon Foundation is pledging $10 million in support of this aforementioned "Grand Bargain" that will enable the DIA to hold its collections "for the public in perpetuity." Additional financial support is coming from the J. Paul Getty Trust, corporations, the State of Michigan, and individual donors. The one catch is that the museum needs to raise sufficient matching funds to meet its $100 million fundraising requirement.

Ultimately, the DIA isn't out of the woods yet, but the prognosis looks promising.