Graham Beal Links Visitors to Art Collection – DIA Strives for Connection

    Graham Beal of the DIA.
    Photo courtesy DIA

    W. J. Beal joined the Detroit Institute of Arts as director, president and CEO in 1999, attracted by the prospect of leading the museum during a major renovation and expansion. Since then, the native of Great Britain has overseen two major capital campaigns and the redesign of the museum. Now the collection is being reinstalled with new tools to help visitors better understand the art and its cultural context. The museum will reopen at 10 a.m., Friday, Nov. 23 with a 32-hour grand opening celebration.

    Corp!: What was the catalyst for the building renovation?
    Beal: It started as a kind of retrofit. The original building was constructed in 1927 with additions in 1966 and 1971. The infrastructure was getting old, including the 70-year-old air handling system. Moisture was getting in and metal pinions which fastened pieces of granite, were coming out. Along with the renovation, we had the opportunity to make it easier for people to get around-”to provide sensible way-finding through a series of galleries arranged along a spine or main street on the first and second floors.

    Corp!: How did you develop internal and external support for the project?
    Beal: Certain work absolutely had to be done and the only question was how to afford it. In 1998, a standalone 501(c)3 was established so we could raise money.
    Corp!: Many museums have been expanding and changing their focus. How do you describe the DIA’s mission today?
    The museum used to take the visitor on the “Grand Tour.” We no longer teach the history of art. We want the DIA to provide a visitor-centered experience where people can make personal connections with art and understand the human purpose of the art. We are focused on the general visitor.

    Corp!: What did you learn from the focus groups?
    Beal: We learned what creates or destroys a museum experience in great detail. It was transformational for me. When we started, we went to other museums such as the Victoria and Albert in London. The reinstallation ideas came from the whole DIA staff. Now other museums are coming here.

    Corp!: What can a visitor expect to see after the November grand re-opening?
    Beal: I hope they will see a vibrant and engaging institution where art is treated with respect but where a much more relaxed form of behavior is acceptable.
    Corp!: What percentage of the museum’s collection will be displayed at any one time?
    Beal: About 5,000 works-”10 percent of the entire collection. Some works are light-sensitive and can only be on view for a short time. Other pieces are loaned out.
    Corp!: As the renovation and reinstallation projects near completion, what have you learned?
    Beal: The only really big blow was discovering that there was asbestos in places which we didn’t know about. That slowed the demolition work and cost $40 million to remove.
    Corp!: What do you like to do in your free time?
    Beal: I enjoy reading and listening to music. I used to do a fair amount of cooking. I usually read three books at a time-”a literary work, a history and a murder mystery. I listen mainly to classical music, including contemporary classical music, although I do like blues and I was in a rock band.