Art and a Crumbling Economy

In June of this year, the Detroit Institute of Arts, a grand institution founded in 1885 and endowed with one of the United States’ most valuable art collections, began to receive some unexpected visitors.  

First there was the IRS agent paying a house call. Then representatives of Christie’s auction house came around investigating the museum’s holdings, probing its value. Their motivations, as of yet, weren’t clear to museum staff or the city’s residents.

Then, on July 18, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy, the largest city to ever do so in our country’s history. Facing a population that didn’t so much dwindle as fall off a cliff, a sprawling urban infrastructure so impossible to upkeep that 40 percent of its streetlights went dark, and a failing auto industry as its sputtering pacemaker, Detroit accrued $18.5 billion in long-term debt and a budget deficit over $380 million, a figure only set to grow. 

The state hired lawyer and bankruptcy expert Kevyn Orr as its emergency manager, the pied piper who was supposed to lead Detroit into solvency by restructuring the city’s financial burdens. Endowed with the power to end government contracts and fire elected officials, it was Orr’s job to figure out where the city could cut back. It was also Orr who sent for Christie’s.

In early August, Orr announced that he would pay the auction house $200,000 to appraise “a portion of the city-owned collection” at DIA, according to the emergency manager’s office. This is a collection that includes major works by Vincent van Gogh, Picasso, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Joan Mitchell, Andy Warhol, and hundreds of other historically significant artists, not to mention the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s infamous 1933 27-panel fresco Detroit Industry, which attracted public controversy with its portrayal of different races working together and a nativity scene with the wise men replaced by doctors and scientists administering a vaccination to baby Jesus. Rivera later cited the paintings as the pinnacle of his career. The whole DIA package is worth well over a billion dollars. 

How could the city possibly pawn its cultural heritage to pay off just a small percentage of its debt? Good question, but the truth is that Orr isn’t setting up for-sale signs just yet, and even if he did, the offloading of all of that work would likely depress the global art market, and the city wouldn’t even make the maximum amount of profit off the deal.

The Christie’s appraisal is simply part of Orr’s effort to tabulate the city’s finances. But by lumping iconic paintings in with replaceable city infrastructure like garages and parking meters, Orr is denigrating the status of visual art and failing to recognize a major force driving Detroit’s renewal—namely, artists.

There are two dominant Detroit narratives being told today. One is of the once-great city fallen: the grand, empty buildings choked with rubble like Michigan Central Station and the Packard plant, far from adequate police forces, and acres of foreclosed homes. The other is of a resurgent utopia. Detroit’s cheap rents and abundant available spaces are drawing the creative class back to the city, a group who are not only providing an influx of money to the economy but also helping to develop a new, more sustainable kind of infrastructure in the form of urban gardens, co-working spaces, and improvised galleries. What’s happening in Detroit is “what happened in Berlin after World War II,” Radu, a young Detroit artist, said.

DIA’s director Graham Beal has been leading the museum since 1999. He arrived in Detroit because he wanted to “try something new, a new way of presenting art to the public that didn’t start from the point of view of a historian.” His initiatives have included transforming the museum’s courtyard into an accessible public space (“a cross between an airport lounge and Starbucks,” he says) as well as launching Inside Out, a series of (waterproof) reproductions of masterpieces from DIA’s collection installed in public places throughout the city.  

Beal sees Orr’s categorization of DIA’s art as an asset of Detroit “an implicit threat.” The museum doesn’t see its art as a possession of the city government. Instead, it’s part of a charitable trust established between DIA and its patrons and donors. Guidelines for American museums largely prohibit the selling off, or deaccessioning, of collection objects for any other reason than buying more art, and even then the practice is controversial.  In its policy on deaccessioning, the Association of Art Museum Directors writes, “Member museums should not capitalize or collateralize collections or recognize as revenue the value of donated works.” A DIA sale would fly directly in the face of that credo; even if it survived, DIA could face expulsion from the group as well as the withdrawal of support from communities around Detroit. 

The details of the possible sale are far from stable. Orr spokesman Bill Nowling has explained that they don’t plan to sell off DIA’s art, per se, but rather leverage it to raise money for the city. "Christie's wants to come to the table with alternatives that generate revenue, substantial revenue, without changing the ownership of the art,” he said. “They didn't just want to come and value the art. They wanted to come and find a solution that would preserve the art.” This raises the confusing possibility of selling the ownership title to the art without allowing it to leave the museum, or working out some kind of sponsorship deal. The problem remains that Orr is treating art as pure capital.

For DIA, art is much more than a commodity to be bartered or a political bargaining chip. It’s a tool to reconnect people in a place that desperately needs knitting together. Like Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural that depicts diverse groups of people, ideologies, and businesses coming together within the space of the city, DIA’s collection provides a lynchpin for the city’s creative revival, which the museum is committed to staying in the center of. “The community is really what we’re working on,” Beal said. 

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