Why Detroit’s Art Is Like the Barnes Foundation

Detail of Vincent van Gogh Self Portrait at DIA

The swirl of overheated opinion surrounding the valuation of Detroit’s art as an asset continues further obscuring the real dynamics of what’s going on Michigan’s most beleaguered town. The problem lies with those who think Detroit’s predicament is universal and feel they’re staging a battle on the ramparts against philistinism. If you allow Detroit to appraise its art, the thinking seems to go, you’re simultaneously devaluing the importance of art and culture and opening the door to further kleptocratic appropriations from the “public trust.”

The assumption is that anyone who entertains recognizing the value of Detroit’s art is anti-art which is why there’s been such mean-spirited denunciation of the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl. (For a more balanced look at the issue, read the various shades of opinion elicited by the New York Times this weekend.) Alicia Eler provides on Hyperallergic the best example of this position:

it is clear that Michigan citizens who can see beyond dollar signs and dumb quick fixes and recognize the importance of the DIA. Voters in three Detroit-area counties passed a ballot measure that will raise an estimated $23 million each year for the museum.

“The people agreed to a tax to support the museum, which is unheard of,” says Nancy Jones, formerly of the DIA’s Education department, about the three-county ballot measure. […] Furthermore, selling off the DIA would certainly not suddenly solve Detroit’s financial dilemmas; the collection is a “mini Met” of sorts, rife with hundreds of masterpieces, many of which are under legal agreement by donors.

Here’s the thing about Detroit. DIA is in a unique situation where a substantial amount of the art in the museum was bought by the city itself, not donated as gifts. To date, there’s no indication that the appraisal work being done goes beyond those works bought by the city and not a donation. Whether a city can make a gift to itself is a question we’ll leave to the many legal scholars who will no doubt be drawn into this mess should it go forward.

The important point here is that no one thinks Chicago should now start appraising the art in its museums so as to be prepared for the inevitable reckoning in Illinois. That’s because the city of Chicago did not purchase the art that sits in Chicago’s museums.

Furthermore, valuing the city-bought art in DIA’s collection is not the first step toward selling it on the open market. Appraising what the city bought is the first step toward a negotiation between the city and surrounding political entities, including the state.

It’s worth reading Joseph Stiglitz’s points about the Detroit bankruptcy from today’s New York Times in this context. The surrounding counties have withdrawn from the city with the exception of a few institutions like DIA, those counties don’t want to take responsibility for what’s going on in the city. Detroit’s art is one of the few things that the suburban communities value, that’s why the Emergency Manager is threatening to sell it:

Detroit is the example par excellence of the seclusion of affluent (and mostly white) elites in suburban enclaves. There is a rationale for battening down the hatches: the rich thus ensure that they don’t have to pay any share of the local public goods and services of their less well-off neighbors, and that their children don’t have to mix with those of lower socioeconomic status.

The trend toward self-reinforcing inequality is especially apparent in education, an ever shrinking ladder for upward mobility. Schools in poorer districts get worse, parents with means move out to richer districts, and the divisions between the haves and the have-nots — not only in this generation, but also in the next — grow ever larger.

Residential segregation along economic lines amplifies inequality for adults, too. The poor have to somehow manage to get from their neighborhoods to part-time, low-paying and increasingly scarce jobs at distant work sites. Combine this urban sprawl with inadequate public transportation systems and you have a blueprint for transforming working-class communities into depopulated ghettos.

Adding to the problems that would inevitably arise from such poorly designed urban agglomerations is the fact that the Detroit metropolitan area is divided into separate political jurisdictions. The poor are thus not only geographically isolated, but politically ghettoized as well. The result is a separate, poorer inner city with a dearth of resources, made even worse because the industrial plants that had provided the core of the tax base are shut down.

Think of what’s going on in Detroit right now as a reverse of the battle in Philadelphia over the Barnes Foundation. There a suburban institution was brought into the center of the city to bolster the city’s attractiveness to tourists and increase the density of museums. The move caused howls by many of the same folks who are castigating Schjeldahl for entertaining the idea of selling Detroit’s art.

The city elders got off easy in Philadelphia. They got several local foundations to raise the $150m or so needed to build a new building and succeeded in acquiring Barnes’s fabled collection.

In essence, Kevyn Orr is trying to force the suburban counties surrounding Detroit to acquire the city’s museum. When Detroit was wealthy, it could afford to buy art. Now that the suburbs are wealthy—and want to keep DIA open and have proven it by raising a levy to provide the bulk of the museum’s operating costs—Orr is trying to get those same entities to buy out the city’s art to keep the museum whole.

Rather than showing a disregard for the value of art, DIA’s central role in the drama of Detroit emphasizes just how important art is.

For Chicago, Detroit Isn’t a Distant Reality (Hyperallergic)

The Wrong Lesson from Detroit’s Bankruptcy (NYTimes)