No one involved in the debate over selling the Detroit Institute for Arts’ collection thinks the act would be a good thing. Lost in the debate is the fact that selling art is a time-consuming process, unwieldy at its best and terrible during a bankruptcy. Seizing the value of DIA for Detroit’s creditors—especially the retired public employees—would be a trick, multi-year project.
As much as the decision has become a flashpoint for the bankruptcy story, it is truly a sideshow and a bargaining chip meant to underscore the severity of the situation. The surrounding suburban counties of Detroit want to keep DIA intact and open, they’ve said as much by providing an operating budget. It seems unlikely that those same counties won’t step up in one form or another to keep the art in Detroit.
But should brinksmanship provoke a sale, the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl provides a succinct reminder that selling art is not tantamount to destroying it. Indeed, civic pride and self-importance aside, one museum is not necessarily a better steward of art than another or a private owner:
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.
Should Detroit Sell Its Art? (New Yorker)