by Alberto Ibarguen, Mariam Noland, Rip Rapson and Darren Walker
Originally published in the Detroit Free Press
Inside the walls of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, perhaps Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals best capture the spirit of the city. These iconic tributes to Detroit’s rich legacy of innovation and hard work personify Detroit itself, with citizens of diverse backgrounds coming together to build the city with our own hands into a great American metropolis.
It is this spirit of entrepreneurship and determination that made Detroit an envy of the world and the arsenal of democracy, a spirit that persists today throughout the region.
As philanthropies with deep ties to the region, we share that commitment for Detroit’s future. That is why we have come together as part of a plan proposed by Chief Judge Gerald Rosen and his bankruptcy mediation team, to help Detroit honor its commitment to retirees and protect the remarkable DIA collection in perpetuity. We view this proposal as a productive step towards revitalizing Detroit, and a valuable contribution to a balanced overall settlement of the bankruptcy case.
We want to be very clear about what this plan does and doesn’t do, and how it will serve the region. The plan we have joined has three primary goals:
■ Substantively support Detroit and its citizens in the effort to revitalize and renew this great city.
■ Help the city honor its commitments to retirees.
■ Preserve the Detroit Institute of Arts collection for the benefit of the people and economy of southeastern Michigan.
Under the terms of the agreement, the city will transfer the museum’s collection and facilities to the DIA, the nonprofit organization that currently runs the museum, for hundreds of millions of dollars to be paid over a number of years. This will prevent the museum’s world class collection from any potential sale to satisfy the city’s creditors now or at any time in the future. The funds paid to the city by foundations and other funders will then be directed exclusively to the pensions owed to retired city employees — a down payment on a hard-earned promise from Detroit to its workers.
With the explicit understanding from all parties that the funds from this arrangement will be used solely for these purposes — the preservation of the DIA and all funds directed toward the city’s pension obligations — a working group of foundations, which includes our organizations, agreed this week to contribute to Judge Rosen’s mediation team’s effort. Furthermore, the funding will only be made available by the Foundations through this arrangement if the principal beneficiaries of the funding — the city, its retirees and employees, and the DIA — reach agreements that can be included in an agreed-upon Plan of Adjustment that would be jointly recommended by them to the Bankruptcy Court.
The situation Detroit faces is without precedent. The challenges facing the city, particularly its pension obligations and the fate of the DIA collection, necessitate thoughtful and collaborative solutions. What is now in front of us is an opportunity to address these two significant obstacles simultaneously, in a way that would strengthen the overall stability and economic promise of Detroit.
Retired city employees play a vital role in the city and to its prosperity — past, present and future. Tens of thousands of Detroit’s firefighters, police officers and city employees, who have served the community for decades and earned their retirement packages through hard work and sacrifice, are facing deep cuts to their pensions. As organizations resolved to help revitalize the city, it is our obligation to support these women and men at this critical moment. For the future of Detroit requires a strong commitment to public service.
Similarly, investing in the city’s art collection is investing in Detroit’s future. For over a century, the artwork at the DIA has been a beacon of culture for the Detroit area, strengthening the community, attracting residents and visitors alike and adding to Detroiters’ sense of identity and connection to the city. One of the leading museums in the country, the DIA’s collection is as treasured locally as it is world-renowned. Detroit is a city worthy of a world-class art collection, and it ought to be protected for all Detroiters and residents of Michigan more broadly, now and for generations to come.
The Rosen team’s plan — deliberate, equitable and impactful — will protect a civic treasure for the future and help thousands of families in the community by providing a significant down payment toward their retirement savings. It is intended to be one piece of a much larger, balanced plan for the city’s revitalization, but one that we believe will benefit all of Detroit.
Our work in the region stretches back decades and will continue in full. Our financial commitments to this plan do not replace our existing Detroit grantmaking. And we will be vigilant in seeing that transparency and accountability will be guiding principles as the plan is implemented.
The spirit of Rivera’s magnificent murals belongs to the city as much as the works that embody it: at its greatest moments, people and institutions came together in Detroit to forge new paths and create opportunity and prosperity for millions of Americans. It is our sincere hope that this plan helps build a new Detroit, a re-born city, a unified region that fosters greatness once again.
Alberto Ibargüen is president and CEO of the Knight Foundation. Mariam Noland is president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Rip Rapson is president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation. Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation.