Chair of Detroit Institute of Arts honored with leadership award

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

An attorney with an artist’s touch has been named a recipient of a “Shining Light Award,” an honor bestowed annually by The Detroit Free Press to “individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the metro Detroit community.”


One such star is Eugene Gargaro Jr., the longtime chair of the Detroit Institute of Arts, who will be honored with the 2017 Neal Shine Award for Exemplary Regional Leadership, recognizing his pivotal role in helping secure the future of the DIA amid a series of daunting challenges in recent years. The award is named in honor of the late Free Press publisher who was a champion of the city and its cultural institutions.

A former partner with Dykema Gossett in Detroit, Gargaro has chaired the DIA board since 2003 and in August of 2012 spearheaded a successful tri-county millage campaign that ensures 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 millage effort, 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 in an interview with The Legal News. “We figured that we would have strong support in Wayne and Oakland, but knew we would have our challenges in Macomb.”

Gargaro (shown at right) 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. “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,”112according 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.

“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.

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. 

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 14 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 last year 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.”

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