Smooth Operator

Elliott Broom leads the operations staff of the DIA through crises big and small, ensuring that — despite relentless transitions — everything goes off without a hitch


Published:

Photographs by EE Berger

I promised Elliott Broom no “sweeping up” puns would be made at his expense, but his fastidious behavior makes it a difficult vow to keep.

In the 11 hours I spend with him racing back and forth across the Detroit Institute of Arts, the vice president of museum operations constantly stops to pick up debris from the floor. On a trip through the African Wing, a gum wrapper hiding in the baseboard somehow catches his eye.

“To this day,” he says, stooping, “if I see something on the floor I have to pick it up.”

That’s a holdover from his days as a hotel bellman, he explains with a boyish smile that belies his 50 years. At the Ritz-Carlton Dearborn, where he eventually became front-of-house manager, Broom once collected the hotel’s detritus in his breast pocket, ending each shift with a customary pocket dump.

Now Broom keeps his dress shirt clean and immediately deposits the trash in a bin as he sprints to put out his next figurative fire. Throughout this day, there will be many, and battling each requires hawk-like attention to detail and grace under pressure.

Broom oversees approximately 120 people: visitor services, food services, security, housekeeping, group reservations, and building operations — pretty much everything besides the art. (The department of 700-plus volunteers also reports to his office.)

Since joining the museum in August 2008, he’s seen the DIA go through some heady times, including the triumph of the 2012 millage passage and the see-saw of uncertainty of Detroit’s bankruptcy.

And just when things had finally seemed to settle, Graham Beal, the visionary museum director, retired in June after 16 years at the helm, prompting another major transition for the 130-year-old institution.

I visit with Broom during another transition — the closing weekend of the well-attended Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibit.

It’s 8:45 a.m. on Friday as Broom and I walk to the DIA from the Midtown apartment he shares with his partner, Tim. “The change in the neighborhood over the last few years has been incredible,” he says as we cross Warren Avenue. There’s heavy construction equipment parked in front of the DIA’s Woodward Avenue entrance, much of which is closed off by barrels that signify the coming return of streetcars to the Motor City’s main drag.

We enter the DIA through the Kirby Street door, taking the stairs up to the third floor, “for exercise,” Broom says, grinning.

His office in the administrative wing looks pretty much like any other: filing cabinets, green cubicles, fluorescent lighting. The only clue that it’s attached to a significant cultural institution hangs on the wall of the unused reception area. It appears to be a piece of framed artwork, complete with a museum-quality label. The artist is The Honorable Gerald Rosen, an American (born 1951). The work is titled “Grand Bargain Doodle,” November 2013. Materials: ink, graphite, paper.

The “artwork” reference is judge Rosen’s handwritten notes from the exploratory meetings of The Grand Bargain that would eventually save the DIA, turning it into a private, not-for-profit institution.

Broom’s desk is a mess of paperwork. Nearby sits a framed copy of the Ritz-Carlton credo: “The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.” The words are at the core of Broom’s persona, and, by extension, the DIA’s.

Broom first catches up on emails, but before long we’re out on the museum floor, where he introduces me to Lisa Rezin, director of group sales. The two worked together at Ritz-Carlton. It’s 9:35 a.m. and quiet; just a few visitors loiter in Rivera Court.

“Just wait,” Rezin says. “In about an hour it’ll be off to the races.” At 10:30 a.m. her words ring true; I’m running to keep up with Broom. There’s been a mix-up with a group scheduled to view the exhibit, and Broom promises the lost-looking woman who notified him that he’ll get on it. But there’s no cell-phone service, so we rush downstairs and outside so he can make a call. Instead, he gets stuck holding the door for a stream of visitors entering the museum.

“We have tickets for 11 o’clock,” a woman with spiky hair and thick sunglasses says as she enters.

“We’ll begin the 11 o’clock at around 10:50,” he responds, smiling and holding the door. He greets a few more people, then rushes out to make the call.

We run back upstairs — Broom’s brown wingtips click-clacking on the marble floor — to explain to the women what happened. The group reservation was made under a different name, but it’s all sorted out.

He hands off the group to their leader and turns to me, panting: “I’m ready to sit down.”

It’s quiet back in the office. Broom’s assistant, Eugenia Hicks, comes in and makes a comment about the mess on his desk. He pretends not to hear. She gives him a printed draft of an email. He asks her to change the wording, striking out words in pen.

 We run up a spiral staircase to retrieve a key. The music was out in Kresge Court. Nobody else noticed, except Elliott Broom.

A few minutes later, she comes back with a new version. He grabs his pen and makes more changes. “He just marks my stuff up,” Hicks whispers to me.

Broom and Hicks have a comedic rapport — she’s larger-than-life in a pink shawl and turquoise sandals and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, he’s a skinny, meticulous man in a pinstripe charcoal suit.

“How is it working for Elliott?” I ask.

“It’s great, actually,” she says.

“Actually?” Broom retorts. “What do you mean, ‘actually’?”

Their sarcastic back-and-forth goes on for a while. “Actually” becomes the word of the day.

On the way to Rivera Court — audibly buzzing with human activity — Broom asks what size shoes I wear. “We can go running after work,” he offers.

I make a quip about how that might make for a good sweaty ending to this piece, but I’m thinking, “Haven’t we been running all day?”

At 1 p.m. Broom breaks away for lunch next door with his boss, Executive Vice President and COO Annmarie Erickson, to interview a job candidate.

I check out the exhibit. More stanchions are being added to accommodate the growing line.

A few hours after lunch are spent in the office catching up on emails and phone calls. Broom has more meetings before he can get back out on the floor — where he wants to be. “This is not going to be a delightful meeting,” he tells me, “so I have to leave you here for a bit.” He pats me on the shoulder and sprints out of his office.

At 3:10 p.m., Broom pops back into his office, breathing heavily; he’s obviously been running. Next up, a meeting about this year’s Fash Bash. I scribble notes, but most of the conversation is about logistical minutiae: someone can move the planters if they agree to take the liability, someone wants to put up the inclement-weather tent a few days early. Etc. Etc.

After the meeting, Broom darts back into his office to make a call: “How tough would it be to dispatch some more volunteers to the exhibition? I just got an email that it’s really crowded.”

It’s 4:20 p.m. as we head downstairs to meet with Cedric Alexander, the director of building operations. Outside, Broom picks up trash along the sidewalk.

There were five lifts out today, Alexander says, cleaning and tuck-pointing the exterior. For the first time since the 1980s, the exterior is getting a face-lift.

We cross John R Street to inspect new landscaping. “I think this looks great,” Alexander says with a hint of disbelief. “I’ve been with the museum for 17 years and seen a lot of changes here. But I tell you what, this is about the best I’ve ever seen it.”

Broom and I head to Kresge Court to check on the crowd. “This isn’t bad,” he says. It’s 5:15 p.m. — too late for lunch but too early for dinner.

There’s no music playing though — and that’s a problem. I think back to the credo: “...fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.”

We run up a spiral staircase to retrieve a key for the A/V closet. By 5:28 p.m., the music is back on. It had been knocked out by a power outage earlier in the week. Nobody else had bothered to turn it back on, likely because nobody noticed — except Broom.

Broom checks his watch. It’s 6 p.m.

“Dude, our ‘official’ day here is done,” he says. “I think we should go for a run, ’cause I need it. And then I’ll come back here and see what the operation looks like in the evening.”

He tells Hicks to be prepared to stay late Sunday, when the DIA will be open until midnight if there’s enough demand. After close, the staff will celebrate with a tequila toast.

“I’m not staying ’til midnight,” she says. “Can I have my bottle to go?”

“It’s just one toast,” Broom tells her.

“That’s OK,” she says. “I’ve got a lot at home.”

We go next door to Chartreuse to meet a friend of Broom’s. At 7:45 p.m., we’re outside the Diego & Frida exhibit again, and the stanchions are full but the crowd is not unmanageable. Broom is excited to be working the line tomorrow. “I love it. You get to interact with the visitors,” he says.

We walk out the doors of the museum just after 8 p.m. To my relief, all talks of a run have subsided.

At 8:45 p.m. we’re back at Broom’s apartment a full 12 hours after we’d left. He’s changed and about to head out for dinner when his phone vibrates.

“It’s from the museum,” he says apprehensively. “Holy crap, when did the lines do this?”

He shows me a video of the exhibit. The line has spilled out into an adjoining hallway. He tells whoever is on the other end of the line to get the stanchions uncrated first thing tomorrow morning.

It’s going to be another busy day.


Broom and staff will likely work long hours in October. The DIA opens its revamped Ancient Middle East gallery on Oct. 2. On Oct. 18, a showcase by African-American artists called “30 Americans” opens. For information, visit dia.org.

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