The recent frustration over suggestions that the Detroit Institute of Arts might sell its collection to help pay the city’s debts was met with a howl of outrage. Bloomberg view columnist Virginia Postrel tried to stir the pot a bit with this commentary suggesting Detroit’s justified local pride did not guarantee the works ought to remain in what has become a backwater city:
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.
As you can imagine, the post made Postrel few friends in the region or among the art-as-public-trust crowd. Subsequently, Postrel remembered the creative deals done by museums like Crystal Bridges to share works with institutions that had more cultural assets than cash. So Postrel followed-up with what she saw as a good compromise: time sharing.
As an idea, it actually doesn’t go quite far enough. Eli Broad has been pushing the idea of art collections as lending libraries. And the BBC has pointed to a growing trend in the UK’s formerly wealthy industrial North where works of art accumulated during the heyday of English manufacturing—like Detroit’s cultural acquisitions when it ruled the automotive industry—are being organized into travelling exhibitions that produce enough in fees to help maintain the museums.
Tony Trehy, who manages a museum in Bury, told the BBC that since organizing an exhibition that traveled to China, he’s generated enough income to stop the talk of funding cuts from local government:
“If you’ve got the right works, if you’ve inherited the right artists from the Victorians or whoever, it is a licence to print money basically,” he says.
“We’re in negotiation with various museums in Japan and Taiwan, we’re just about to start looking at making proposals to the Americans. I’ve had meetings in the Gulf about working with Emirates museums, but they’re only exploratory meetings.
“The British Council are now talking about Brazil for the future because of the World Cup and Olympics.
The Brits see China’s new interest in culture as a greenfield for growth, Detroit’s city elders might take note:
“China is building museums every week,” says David Elliott, director of arts at the British Council in China. “Major things. They’re huge. Massive infrastructure projects.
“China’s leadership, which changed last month, has put a great emphasis on culture. The problem is they build all these great museums and theatres and concert halls but they kind of forget that they need to put things in them.
“So the Chinese are very interested in working with British museums.”
Detroit’s Van Gogh Would Be Better Off in L.A. (Bloomberg)
Hey, Matisse, How About a Time Share in Atlanta? (Bloomberg)
China’s rental power could save British art galleries (BBC News)