Monday, July 1, 2013

The Dilemma of the Detroit Institute of Arts

We resume The Jade Sphinx this week with some thoughts on something of a controversy regarding the role of museums and the public trust.

Detroit, Michigan is some $15-$17 billion dollars in debt.  Seeking to find revenue, there has been some discussion of selling the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a fabulous museum in a severely financially-strapped city.

The collection at the DIA is world-class.  It includes work by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569).  If Detroit seeks bankruptcy protection, city officials say that the collection could be sold to satisfy creditors.  The city’s state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr is debating whether the collection should be considered city assets that could be sold to cover the long-term debt.  The art, if sold, could be worth billions of dollars.  Brugel’s The Wedding Dance, for example, is estimated to be worth between $100-$150 million dollars.  A fire sale at the DIA might be just what the exhausted and depleted city needs.

This should be chilling to anyone actively involved in museums.  The historical wisdom is that the city (or state) is the best possible guardian of nonprofit cultural institutions like museums – but the modern-day reality may be that museums have to be protected from them.  Governments can destroy art in any number of ways – censorship, war, religious intolerance – but simply spending more than we have seems a distinctly American twist to the challenge.

The outrage about this possibility has been swift – its efficacy not yet demonstrated.  Voting 24-13, the Senate passed a bill introduced by Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) that would create obstacles standing in the way of any effort to sell the collection.  In addition, the Michigan Attorney General, Bill Schuette, said that the collection is held in charitable trust for the people of Michigan and could be not sold to help settle debts.  But, city officials disagree.

Where do we at The Jade Sphinx stand on this debate?

Well, the protection and curatorship of great art is a covenant.  This covenant stands between our artistic heritage and the people and their leaders.  The covenant is not just that the works be accessible to the public, but also protected, cherished and held valuable by the public.  In this case, that covenant has been broken.

The population of Detroit has dropped from nearly 2 million in the mid-1950s to somewhere around 700,000 today.  Detroit is no longer heavily visited, with the result that these great treasures are little-seen outside of a dwindling population.

If we respect the covenant that binds responsible stewardship to great art, we believe the works here are too culturally important, too artistically relevant and too precious to be so underutilized.  Our recommendation would be – if Detroit insists on the sale of these treasures – that they be sold to other museums in cities with more sizable populations and with greater resources to promote the arts. 

Tomorrow we look at a picture in the DIA collection, Selene and Endymion by Nicolas Poussin.

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