“Detroit Art City” Documents Dramatic Time at the City’s Revered Museum


Voters in three counties ultimately approved a special tax to help fund the Detroit Institute of Arts.


Documentary filmmakers fear dullness. What if they capture countless hours of video … and nothing interesting happens?

So you can forgive Genevieve Savage for harboring a few doubts as she set out to shoot a documentary about an art museum. Dimly lit galleries and overpriced gift shops don’t exactly scream drama.

But Savage didn’t choose just any museum. She picked the Detroit Institute of Arts, which has experienced more ups and downs in recent years than any other major museum in the nation.

“People take things like an art museum for granted. Museums have this reputation as being stuffy or boring – certainly not the subject of a dramatic documentary,” Savage said. “But this was an amazing period for the museum.”

Savage’s first hurdle was persuading the museum’s management to give her behind-the-scenes access during a critical period.

“They were very wary,” she said. “It was a daunting time for the museum to allow a documentary. They were looking at serious artistic and financial challenges.”


“Detroit’s the canary in the coal mine.” -Genevieve Savage

“Detroit Art City”
Detroit Public Television



Eventually, though, museum officials concluded that letting Savage and her camera in the door was a risk worth taking. She knows art, having earned a bachelor’s degree in art history, and she knows how to tell stories, having earned a master’s degree in film.

“Detroit Art City” delves into the history of the institute, showing how its collections grew during the city’s automotive heyday as wealthy benefactors showed the museum with gifts. She explores the additions and renovations that put the museum at the fore of modern gallery design and visitor flow.

“For some, the story of the museum is a cautionary tale, and for others, it’s an inspiration.”
Genevieve Savage

The film hits the present as the museum confronts a chronic budget crunch by asking voters to approve a special property tax levy. The election, which voters in three counties eventually approved, sparked a passionate debate about what value art brings to a community – and whether that value should be available to people from all walks of life.

“You’ve got cities that fall on hard economic times, like Detroit, and it becomes funding the police vs. the art museum, or a stadium vs. the art museum,” Savage said. “But ultimately it shouldn’t be an either/or question, because art is for everyone.”

DPTV Detriot Art city cover

“Detroit Art City” takes viewers into the present day as the museum becomes embroiled in Detroit’s high-profile bankruptcy. Some of the city’s creditors have made noises about forcing the city to liquidate some of its collection – a heretical idea in art circles.

The film grew out of an initiative by Detroit Public Television, which aimed to produce a high-quality documentary to chronicle the Detroit Institute of Art’s story. The project was funded by a grant from the Richard and Jane Manoogian Foundation.

Savage, who is working to land slots for the film in various film festivals and on the PBS World channel, says her story transcends Detroit.

“Detroit’s the canary in the coal mine,” she said. “For some, the story of the museum is a cautionary tale, and for others, it’s an inspiration.”