An artist's touch: DIA board chair deftly leads a Detroit treasure


– Photos courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

The venerable Detroit Institute of Arts was around long before the first automobile rolled off the assembly line.

The DIA has been a Detroit gem since 1883, and like any precious stone, it needs occasional polishing, a recurring task that requires manpower and money. The area’s legal community, led by one man in particular for the past 13 years, has been ever ready to supply both over the course of the DIA’s existence, helping keep the art museum among the finest repositories of priceless collections in the U.S.

Eugene Gargaro Jr., chairman of the Board of Directors for the DIA since 2003, is among those working tirelessly to ensure a bright future for the arts in the Motor City.  Three years ago, the very existence of the DIA was at risk, square in the crosshairs of creditors clamoring for a financial pound of flesh in the wake of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing.

“We were on the brink, there was no questioning that,” said Gargaro. “Some wanted us dismantled, painting by precious painting, brick by brick. In strictly financial terms, we were viewed as an ‘asset,’ which in that sense meant we could be fair game for creditors.”

It was a decided shift in status for the DIA, which only a year earlier appeared to be framed in a much more positive financial light.

In August of 2012, voters in the tri-county area of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb voiced their strong support for a 0.2-mill property tax increase earmarked for the DIA, ensuring a 10-year revenue stream expected to generate roughly $23 million annually for the museum.

Gargaro, as is his style, quietly and effectively led the successful millage campaign, working behind the scenes to “build relationships and bridges to understanding” the mission of the DIA.

“We had watched what the Detroit Zoo did in securing a millage for its operational support, and we then made our case to the three county executives (Robert Ficano in Wayne, L. Brooks Patterson in Oakland, and Mark Hackel in Macomb) about a similar proposal for the DIA,” Gargaro related. “We figured that we would have strong support in Wayne and Oakland, but knew we would have our challenges in Macomb.”

Gargaro and his team of millage supporters proved the doubters wrong, garnering solid voter approval in each county.

“We were heartened by the widespread support for the millage request, since we were coming out of the recession when we had to institute some significant operating cutbacks and a one-third reduction in our work force,” said Gargaro, who earned his law degree from the University of Detroit in 1967.

“For many years we were receiving up to $15 million in state and city support, money that covered most of our operating needs,” Gargaro explained. “By 2010, that support had gone to zero, which obviously meant that we had to plug a major hole in our revenue stream.”

The afterglow from the millage victory was short-lived, however, as the city’s precarious financial situation threatened to drag the DIA into uncharted waters. In March of 2013, the state had appointed Kevyn Orr, a bankruptcy lawyer with the Jones Day law firm, as Detroit’s emergency manager, setting the stage in July for the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in the nation’s history.

“Suddenly, we were viewed as the only city asset not pledged as collateral,” Gargaro said. “The Emergency Manager directed us to consider the following options, which were: (1) Sell art; (2) Borrow against it; or (3) Loan our art to other museums. The first two options, we all agreed, were not acceptable.

“We were asked to ‘consider selling a few van Goghs,’ to help the city’s cause, but if we had gone down that road, Oakland and Macomb made it clear that they would stop paying their share of the millage levy,” Gargaro related. “We were in a very tough spot.”

By late fall, a glimmer of hope had surfaced for Gargaro and the DIA following a meeting with U.S. District Chief Judge Gerald Rosen and prominent Detroit attorney Eugene Driker.

“I first met with Judge Rosen in November 2013 when he and Eugene Driker were putting the framework together for what would come to be known as the ‘Grand Bargain,’” Gargaro said. “It quickly became clear to me that we were very fortunate to have someone of Judge Rosen’s intelligence and passion for problem-solving helping lead the way at such a critical stage for the City of Detroit and its citizens. Judge Rosen and Eugene Driker were committed to helping the city exit bankruptcy as a viable entity, while preserving employee pensions and saving one of the great art institutes in the country.”

While much of the success of the plan rested on securing funding support from the state and major foundations, the DIA also would be asked to have some “skin in the game,” according to Gargaro.

“After Judge Rosen secured funding commitments from the foundation community and the state, I then met with Governor (Rick) Snyder in January of 2014 and pledged to raise $100 million as part of this ‘Grand Bargain,’” Gargaro said. “I didn’t have any idea how we would be able to raise that kind of money in the time frame we were given, but the Governor offered his support in helping us state our case to potential donors.”

Within the span of 10 months, the DIA hit its fund-raising goal, adding a key financial piece to the bankruptcy exit strategy.

“We first went to Ford, GM, and Chrysler to see if they would get on board,” Gargaro said. “Fortunately, none of them threw us out of the room.”

In fact, the Big Three “worked together to put a $26 million package” in place, providing a major boost to the early fund-raising efforts, said Gargaro.

“Once we had commitments from the Big Three, it was much easier to approach other major corporations, including Toyota and members of the auto supplier industry,” he said.

As momentum began to build toward the $100 million goal, Gargaro said that “money started coming in from all over the world,” as “people wanted to be part of the story” to save the DIA from the reach of city creditors.

“When we would approach potential donors, they were inclined to ask, ‘How long do I have to pay my pledge?’ That was a sure sign that we were going to receive their support,” Gargaro said.

When Governor Snyder was informed that the DIA had reached its fund-raising goal within 10 months, “he was surprised and very pleased,” Gargaro said.

“I told him it was the result of a lot of hard work by a number of very dedicated people who believe in the cultural importance of the DIA to the future of Detroit,” added Gargaro.

Not the least of whom is the DIA board chief himself, a native of Detroit and a graduate of Detroit Austin, the Catholic high school that produced the likes of NBA great Dave DeBusschere.

“I grew up near 7 Mile and Livernois in a neighborhood known as Sherwood Forest,” Gargaro said. “Back then, in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Detroit had a population of almost two million and was a very exciting place to live.”

Gargaro’s father, Eugene Sr., was the second-generation head of Gargaro Construction Co., which by the time of his retirement in the late ‘50s reportedly was the largest commercial contracting firm in the state.

One of six brothers from an Italian family, the elder Gargaro had hopes that his son would follow him in the construction business.

“I was slated to be an engineer, but I probably disappointed my dad by becoming a lawyer instead,” admitted Gargaro, who studied economics and finance at Georgetown University.

His mother, Nancy, “a real spirited woman who when she walked into a room would light it up,” probably had a different take on her son’s career choice. Her father, after all, was a Recorder’s Court senior judge and served as dean of the University of Detroit School of Law in the 1920s.

After studying tax law at New York University, Gargaro returned to his hometown to work for Dykema Gossett, a Detroit-based firm that was on the verge of a growth spurt.

“There were 35 lawyers when I joined the firm in 1967 and some 300 when I left in 1993 for Masco,” Gargaro recalled.

By then, Gargaro’s legal expertise was well known across the state.

“Gene possesses a brilliant legal mind and has a knack for problem solving, for distilling complex matters into understandable terms,” said noted Bloomfield Hills attorney Gordon Snavely, a longtime friend and law school classmate of Gargaro’s.

“He has been my buddy for years, our daughter’s godfather,” Snavely said. “He is one of the most industrious, hard-working, sincere, honest, good guys you will ever meet in your life. He truly is an inspiration to anyone who knows him. He is the gold standard – he really is in terms of achievement. No one is harder working than Gene or more of a gentleman. He has been (Richard) Manoogian’s main man for years and that says plenty right there.”

From 1993 until his “retirement” in 2008, Gargaro served as vice president and secretary of Masco Corp., a Fortune 500 company founded in 1929 by Alex Manoogian, whose name is on the mansion that serves as the official residence for the mayor of Detroit.

While with Masco, Gargaro “worked very closely with Richard Manoogian,” who succeeded his father as head of the Taylor-based company that manufactures a variety of products for the home improvement and home building markets.

In fact, it was Manoogian, a renowned art collector and the DIA board chair for 17 years, who made an “offer in 2003 that I just couldn’t refuse,” said Gargaro with a sly grin.

“He ‘suggested’ that I take over his duties as board chair,” Gargaro related.

Now, some 13 years and several near-death experiences later for the DIA, Gargaro has a new sense of energy about the task at hand.

“The DIA is now held in public trust, independent of the city,” Gargaro said of the museum, which recently welcomed Salvador Salort-Pons as its new director, succeeding the retiring Graham Beal. “We are in a new era at the DIA, and the positive energy in the museum is contagious.”

Nettie Seabrooks, former chief operating officer of the DIA and now a consultant to the Richard and Jane Manoogian Foundation, attributes the brighter outlook to one person in particular.

“When it comes to board chairs, it’s common to find someone who possesses a certain skill or another,” said Seabrooks, who spent 31 years in an executive role with General Motors before serving as chief of staff for Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. “It’s indeed rare to find someone like Gene who possesses such a strong combination of skills for the benefit of an organization like the DIA.

“He would deny it, but we wouldn’t have a millage to support our operations if it wasn’t for Gene,” said Seabrooks, who holds master degrees from the University of Michigan and Wayne State. “He went across Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, meeting with key people and developing relationships that ultimately went a long way in ensuring a successful millage campaign. Gene genuinely likes people, and that’s something that you can’t fake. They, in turn, regard him as their friend and recognize how hard he has worked to promote the mission of the DIA. It truly has been a labor of love for him.”

Gargaro, in turn, said that his wife of 46 years, Mary Anne, deserves more than her share of credit for the work he has devoted to the DIA.

“I couldn’t do what I have done without her involvement and support over these many years,” Gargaro said of his wife. “It would have added to the ‘degree of difficulty’ without her smarts and insight. She has provided incredible help.”

The couple met during high school and have two children, Lauren and Gene, and two grandchildren.

The second of three “Genes” in the family, Gargaro is regarded with “the utmost admiration and respect” throughout the greater philanthropic community, according to Mariam Noland, president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan since 1985.

“Gene has demonstrated an amazing amount of talent and energy for all the good causes he has been involved in around Detroit, especially the DIA,” said Noland, who helped make the “Grand Bargain” become a reality. “He was seemingly there 24/7 during the Detroit bankruptcy case, helping raise an incredible amount of money for the DIA during a very short period of time. His leadership made it happen. We
all owe him a debt of gratitude for that.”