CFO Awards 2015
In the long history of the Detroit Institute of Arts, it would be hard to find a period any shakier than the one it just went through.
The museum found itself at the center of Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy, its storied art collection used as a poker chip during the negotiations of 2013 and 2014.
Just a year before that began, the DIA pulled itself out of budgetary quicksand by pushing through a 10-year tri-county millage that gives it about $23 million annually.
In charge of the museum’s finances throughout all this was Vice President and CFO Robert Bowen. He spent a career at Chrysler before going into semi-retirement, then emerged to take a job at the DIA, something he’d long thought he might like to do.
Bowen, 61, didn’t know he was about to enter one of the DIA’s most tumultuous times.
Museum revenue came up 60 percent shy of costs every year, with a lot of fundraising making up the difference. When Bowen came aboard in 2011, efforts to generate millage money were getting serious.
Bowen learned campaign finance rules on the fly.
“That was something I certainly had never done before,” he said.
Fiscal crises come and go. What came next was “beyond that,” Bowen said. “This got to be the most existential threat.”
With the DIA’s collection under threat of liquidation during Detroit’s bankruptcy, Bowen conducted the train of paperwork flowing to the courts.
Creditors subpoenaed records dating back to the inception of the museum. The DIA negotiated for fewer documents but still had to provide a massive number of records on artwork, donors and minutes of meetings long forgotten. To do this, more than a 100,000 records had to be digitized.
“Stuff was all over the place. We brought in a team to do all the scanning. They set up shop for several weeks,” Bowen said. “I had to make sure people were on it full time.”
The DIA’s lawyers asked Bowen to provide information they needed in the negotiations. He showed that the city had contributed only 1.1 percent of the DIA’s budget during the previous 15 years and that for most of its history it had been supported by donors and the public. This allowed the museum to argue that it was city-owned in name but not in practice.
“The title was with the city, but many other people had a role,” Bowen said. “Why would people do that if they thought the city bought and sold it as it pleased? Well, they didn’t. That was the basis of the DIA’s arguments.”
With the “grand bargain” now settled, Bowen has to manage the 20-year, $100 million municipal pension fund obligation it agreed to as part of gaining the DIA’s independence from the city — not the sort of thing most art museum CFOs have to worry about.
But the independence gained was worth it, Bowen said. For future generations who look at the museum’s timeline, it will stand out as one of its biggest turning points.
“It is an historic moment and … it is an honor to be part of a keystone event in the museum’s history,” he said.
Bowen has learned some things on the job, too, like how to make sure donors’ wishes are honored. One pot of money might be able to be used for any operational purpose, while another must go only toward the purchase of modern art, for example. And quarterly sales expectations take a backseat to other considerations.
“The time periods we look at are so much different than what we look at in the corporate world,” Bowen said. “When someone is looking to preserve something forever, basically, it’s a different perspective.”