Detroit, Emergency Managers — July 26, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Dear world: Keep your greedy hands off the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection


The DIA is a superhero among museums. But that doesn’t mean it should have to save Detroit.

I don’t understand this obsession some people have with the Detroit Institute of Arts selling off the treasures in its collection. Do they think it’s the DIA’s responsibility to save Detroit? Because it’s not.

Of course, the people who think the DIA should sacrifice itself for the good of the city don’t actually live here. They also don’t seem to have any other ideas for helping Detroit get back on its feet.

It began with the insufferable Virginia Postrel, who started a firestorm with a piece entitled, “Detroit’s Van Gogh Would Be Better Off in L.A.” I was one of many who loudly voiced an opposing viewpoint. (There’s a link to her piece in my post.)

Her premise in the article and a self-righteous follow-up was essentially that Detroit doesn’t appreciate its art. How she arrived at that conclusion I’ll never know, considering she has not been to the DIA once. She now says she’ll never come to Detroit again after the indignation expressed over her article.

More recently, The New Yorker published a piece entitled “Should Detroit Sell Its Art?” The author, the thesaurus-happy Peter Schjeldahl, says his answer is yes … although it’s “garlanded with regrets.” [UPDATE: Schjeldahl has reversed his position since this was first posted. Details below.]

Before he makes the ludicrous claim in his conclusion that it’s a choice between selling the DIA’s art or paying the city’s pensioners — as if there is no other option — he upends his own argument:

Nora Caplan-Bricker, writing in The New Republic, gauged it this way in June: ‘Every person should have the chance, not just to see art, but to live down the street from it.’ That eloquently evokes the ineffable benefits, of identity and of self-esteem, that a city’s museums may bestow even on people who never visit them. The prospective departure of the D.I.A.’s touchstones by Jan van Eyck, Fra Angelico, Bellini, Titian, Rembrandt, Velásquez, Brueghel, Goya, Cézanne, and van Gogh—merely to sample the starry list of possible sacrificial victims—thus suggests intolerable violence to the very soul of Detroit’s suffering body. It’s a strong argument, other things being equal; but other things are not.

Although Schjeldahl apparently got his idea about selling off DIA artwork to pay pensioners from a spokesperson for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr — “It’s hard to go to a pensioner on a fixed income and say, ‘We’re going to cut 20 percent of your income or 30 percent or whatever the number is, but art is eternal.’ ” — it doesn’t make the argument valid. I would certainly hope for the salary he’s drawing, Orr would be able to come up with more than one way to avoid leaving pensioners destitute.

Caplan-Bricker’s view is that Detroit should keep its art. Schjeldahl believes art will survive wherever it lives. I think Detroit’s art belongs right where it is, because it came to Detroit for a reason: because we invested in it, because people donated it to the DIA (not another museum), because it’s part of the heart and soul of what makes Detroit great. Selling off the DIA’s collection would be a brutal blow to the city’s cultural center — one of the areas that’s growing and thriving right now. Why would we want to give up some of the best Detroit has to offer?

I’m grateful to Judith H. Dobrzynski, who recently wrote a piece entitled “Apalled By Christie’s ‘Vulture’ Behavior.” I urge you to read her entire article, where she chastises Christie’s for sending appraisers into the DIA — no one seems to know who invited them — and commends the DIA for its grace under pressure.

Dobrzynski also makes the excellent point that the DIA is in no way responsible for the challenges Detroit faces. In fact, she says, the DIA has “husbanded its resources very well and acted responsibly over the last several years.”

Why should the DIA suffer for the sins of those who mismanaged the city where it resides? Why should the DIA be punished for having valuable assets? I am completely in support of protecting the pensioners and the people of Detroit who are in harm’s way if their lives are deemed less important than the interests of corporations and creditors as bankruptcy proceedings move forward. But it should not be the responsibility of the DIA to come to the city’s rescue.

As Detroit and the people who love it work tirelessly to bring the city back, inspiration and hope are going to fuel those efforts. I can think of no better place to recharge our souls and find that inspiration than surrounded by the creative genius inside the walls of the DIA.

UPDATE: After I published this, Peter Schjeldahl had a change of opinion, writing that he takes back his endorsement of selling the DIA’s art and apologizes to “the many whom my words pained.” I accept his heartfelt apology and regret my previous criticism of his writing. I appreciate the honesty expressed in his reversed opinion.

Hat-tip to Alan Stamm of Deadline Detroit for alerting me to this news.

[Photo by Amy Lynn Smith]