Friday, July 26, 2013

Hey, Detroit. It's Only Art

Safe to say that ever since the news broke that the entire city of Detroit was filing for bankruptcy hundreds of thousands of us Detroiters and ex-Detroiters and Michiganders everywhere have been biting our nails, gnashing our teeth, pounding the walls, spending partially-sleepless nights worrying about the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).

Detroit Institute of Arts

The DIA, our beautiful jewel of an art museum, is wholly-owned by the city.  The city of Detroit.  Yes, they own it.  They used to say the people owned it, but apparently, as with "By, For, and Of the People", it's all in the interpretation. 

So what's the first thing we hear after that awful news about going bankrupt?  The VERY first thing?  (Even before we heard that the state was going to put up $285 million to build a new stadium for the Red Wings.) We hear that if things don't go right all or part of the DIA's extensive, expensive, exquisite art collection could be up for grabs.

This is how Bill Nowling, spokesman for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr so delicately put it:
"We went to the DIA two months ago and told them that we thought, should the city be forced by its creditors into Chapter 9 bankruptcy, that the assets of the city could be vulnerable."
The folks who manage the DIA as a public, non-profit institution successfully parsed that particular end-phrase and have already contacted lawyers. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette says the works can't be sold because they're held in a public trust.  Others aren't so sure.  The creditors could put up a real stink if they find out Detroit is swimming in assets over at the Purty Pitcher place.  It's a mess.

Then we find out that appraisers from Christie's Auction House invited themselves in and have already been there measuring the nudes and stirring up the dust.  I mean, could you be any more insensitive?

Well, yes, it turns out you can.  Ever heard of Peter Schjeldahl? He's the art critic for the New Yorker.  He lives in New York City.  He's never been to the DIA.  Still, he felt compelled to blog all over the place that it's no skin off his nose if the DIA has to sell off some of our art.

See if you can read the following and give a rodent's patooty about this guy's opinion of what's best for the DIA.  (Lots of hoity-toity words like "ineluctable" and "deaccessions" and "demur" and "abjure".  Just warning you.  And "solicitude".  Right at the end. "Solicitude".)
Art works have migrated throughout history. Unless destroyed, they are always somewhere. It’s best when they are on public display, but if they have special value their sojourns in private hands are likely temporary. At any rate, they are hardly altered by inhabiting one building rather than another. The relationship of art to the institutions that house and display it is a marriage of convenience, with self-interest on both sides, and not an ineluctable romance. I demur from the hysterical piety, among many of my fellow art folk, that regularly greets news of museum deaccessions—though I do wish museums would have the guts to abjure that weasel word for selling things off. (Paging George Orwell.) A museum may thereby maim itself; but the art takes no notice. Protest as we should a local institution’s short-sighted or venal behavior, we must admit at least a sliver of light between such issues and art’s immemorial claims on our solicitude.
In Schjeldahl's stuffy, sniffy piece he pokes a little fun at New Republic writer Nora Caplan-Bricker, who wrote a counterpoint called, "In Defense of Crumbling Museums: Why Detroit Should Keep Its Art".  (Happily, Caplan-Bricker manages to do it without using a single one of those words in quotes above.  And with paragraphs.)

So I'm over there at the New Republic hoping to wallow a while in some commiserating comfort when Nora whaps me silly in the second paragraph with a quote from a writer over at Bloomberg who, if it's possible, is an even bigger smarty-pants than that guy Schjeldahl.

Virginia Postrel's piece is called, "Detroit's Van Gogh Would Be Better Off in L.A".  Yes.  I am serious.  I read it three times.  The title, if you can believe it, is the least cutting of all.  (You might want to sit down for this one. Unless you're already thinking by the title you'll be agreeing with Ginny.  In that case, just stand there, you idiot.)

So Virginia, (yes, a Los Angeles resident) says:
If I lived in Detroit, I’d want to keep these artworks, too. And if I were a museum employee, I’d be particularly demoralized. The DIA has in recent years shown itself a responsible financial steward, and last August won voter approval in three surrounding counties for its first dedicated property-tax funding.
Well, isn't that special?  But wait. . .
Parochial interests aside, however, great artworks shouldn’t be held hostage by a relatively unpopular museum in a declining region. The cause of art would be better served if they were sold to institutions in growing cities where museum attendance is more substantial and the visual arts are more appreciated than they’ve ever been in Detroit. Art lovers should stop equating the public good with the status quo.
And then she says:
In fiscal 2012, which ended June 30, the Detroit museum attracted just fewer than 489,000 visits -- barely 1,000 more than it drew in 1928. With admission now free to residents of the tri-county area, the numbers are up this year, to about 526,000 through April. (These numbers count visits, not individuals; if you come five times, it counts as five visits.) By contrast, last year the Getty Center attracted 1.2 million visitors to a collection whose most impressive asset is the building in which it is housed. (The attendance figure doesn’t include visitors to the separate Getty Villa, which houses Greek and Roman art.)
The museum’s director, Timothy Potts, is charged with adding major works. Last month, the Getty announced the purchase of “Rembrandt Laughing,” a self-portrait of the young painter discovered in 2007, and a Canaletto view of the Grand Canal in Venice. But a young museum can only buy what’s for sale. 
And in conclusion Virginia earnestly suggests that:
Letting the Getty add the Canaletto view of the Piazza San Marco now in Detroit wouldn’t constitute a rape or a bonfire of the vanities. Hanging Van Gogh’s self-portrait [also in Detroit] alongside his “Irises” at the Getty or Bellini’s Madonna [also in Detroit] near his “Christ Blessing” at the Kimbell would not betray the public trust. It would enhance it.
Because they're L.A (or New York)?  Because they have the Getty (or the MOMA)?  Because at our art museum every person, rich or poor, big or little, can wander up and down and through our grand halls, our wondrous rooms, studying, sighing, swooning, breathing it all in, feeling like a million bucks, like there isn't anybody luckier at this very moment,  for free?

Deliver us, please, from unctuous snobs and make them stay where they are.  We're Detroit and they're not.  And we like it that way.

Rivera Court, DIA (Not the murals destroyed at Rockefeller Center, NYC, after Diego Rivera dared to include a figure of Lenin.  We kept ours, it should be noted.)

Addendum:  Mr. Schjeldahl at the New Yorker has had a change of heart.  Click here.

(Cross-posted, as always, at dagblog)


  1. why would this be a problem? Presumably the money that was supposed to go to funding pensions and other obligations was instead going to fund a massive art collection. well, guess what? when you enter bankruptcy the court normally lets you keep a house and a car. It doesn't let you keep the multi-million dollar stamp collection that you picked up with the money you were supposed to be paying your other bills with.

  2. @stevedavis Why would this be a problem? Because the art is NOT an "asset" to be sold. For the most part, it was donated not purchased, and those purchases came about through sales of donated works and cash donations. The art belongs to the people, not the government.

  3. That Rivera will look great in David Koch's bathroom.

  4. The real problem Detroit faced was not the museum (containing largely donated acquisitions) - instead, it was the Republican dream of "starve the beast" coupled with short-sighted management, folks leaving for the suburbs, and the granting of tax breaks to companies that exported jobs overseas.

    Detroit's problems are many and varied - but one large factor is the current "race to the bottom" system of allowing cities and states to offer special tax breaks to industry. Texas is notorious for this: a state which asked for Federal assistance while simultaneously offering far more money to companies if they agreed to move operations to Texas. This isn't "job creation" - it is acting as a parasite on the nation as a whole.

    The real lessons of Detroit are:
    1) Don't accept a low salary in exchange for future pension benefits unless you're sure they can't be stolen from you.

    2) We need federal legislation preventing cities and states from offering tax cuts as an incentive for companies to locate in their particular region. All this does is rob those municipalities of the ability to maintain services and infrastructure. Texas is a good example of this: a state which lacks the ability to fight wildfires, educate its children, or protect its citizens from improperly stored hazardous chemicals - choosing instead to offer low taxes to corporations. Texas won't be the next Detroit tomorrow - it'll take about 20 years - but it will happen unless things change.

  5. @Charles: The fact that something was donated doesn't mean it can't be sold. Most museums tell donors up front that donated pieces can be deaccessioned (sold, traded, given away) if the recipient decides to get rid of it.

  6. No museum in its right mind deaccessions great works of art. They're the pieces the museum builds a reputation on. Unfortunately, since they're the most valuable they're also the ones the vultures have their eyes on. The lesser pieces aren't the ones the Christie's appraisers were looking at.

    Yes, museums sell off and get rid of pieces all the time, but that's not what we're talking about here.

  7. We're hoping that's what the courts will decide, too, Charles. Nobody from the outside should be able to make decisions about the DIA acquisitions. Yes, the city "owns" them but there are still protections in place to keep them from being sold off or destroyed just because someone sees better uses for the money. Lord help us if all of our national treasures were looked at that way.

  8. You've presumed wrong. No city funds went into museum acquisitions EVER. It used to get some funding from the state but--no surprise--it gets none now. Last August the tri-counties (Wayne, Macomb and Oakland) approved a millage that would provide operating funds to the museum, and in turn citizens of those three counties can go any time for free.

    But if you can't see the value of a world-class museum in the city of Detroit, there's not much I can say that will convince you.

  9. Your first paragraph says it all. I don't want the DIA to become yet another victim of greed, hubris and petty spite.

    This entire country is becoming an embarrassment. If we can't take care of our lands and our people what good are we?

  10. Don't give that bastard any ideas. :>)

  11. But not every donated piece is a masterpiece. Further, every museum has more in its collection than it can ever possibly put on public display. Some pieces get rotated, some gather dust in storage rooms for decades, and some get deaccessioned.

    To be frank, I'd rather see the DIA lose a few pieces than have the city sell off Belle Isle, which is another idea that's getting kicked around. Although knowing the way the weasels in Lansing operate, they'll probably try to do both.

  12. Yes, Nancy, every museum divests itself of portions of its collection from time to time. But as I said, we're talking here about the DIA treasures, the pieces they're noted for. The million-dollar babies.

    There is no reason to do an either-or with Belle Isle and the DIA. Not when the state is willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to give the Red Wings a new home they don't need. This is Republican clap-trap. The usual fear tactics to keep us all in line. My guess is they have no intention of selling our artworks, they just want to distract us with the possibility so they can go behind our backs and do something else that'll make their ALEC buddies deliriously happy..


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