On Sunday, the Detroit Free Press reported that the City of Detroit is considering selling the art from the vaults of the Detroit Institute of Arts to pay down billions in city debt. If this happened, it would be unprecedented in American history. The Free Press published a list of the ten works of art considered most valuable in the DIA collection—by artists from van Eyck, Bruegel, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Matisse, and van Gogh to Rothko—and the art world is agog.
It's not something that could necessarily happen just anywhere: Detroit has a highly unusual arrangement. The DIA is not an independent nonprofit, as are most art museums (the Smithsonian Institution's museums excepted), but rather a hybrid operated by a nonprofit but whose building and collections are owned outright by the city. The City of Detroit has about $10 billion in debt that it has no idea how it's going to pay. It's looking for anything liquidateable. No wonder it licks its lips at a Bruegel.
But my god, how could a city just sell off what it could never buy back? That's one perspective: that the City of Detroit is horribly managed and systematically unsustainable, and that selling treasures for one-time profit would be tragically shortsighted, the kind of bailout that actually solves no problems whatsoever.
On the other side of the argument, how can a handful of pictures luxuriate in climate control while a whole city goes up in flames around them? How can anybody care about pictures over people?
Except there may be another question worth asking about Detroit: Where the rich people at? This isn't the DIA's first catastrophe in recent years. It's been so desperate that it's talked of closing altogether. Surely there is no more vulnerable, less well-connected comparable museum anywhere else in this nation. If a city tried to raid its own art to pay its creditors, typically, the moneyed folks, who fund museums and donate artworks and care about things like tourism and the business climate and, well, maybe even plain old civic pride and responsibility, would be up in arms.
But in Detroit, the rich people are in the suburbs, chilling in some of the richest zip codes in the country, places like Bloomfield Hills. This is the aftermath of white flight and the criminally shortsighted automobile industry.
"For years, the car industry essentially took care of everything," says Luis Croquer, deputy director of art and education at the Henry Art Gallery at UW since last March. Before that, he was director of MOCA Detroit.
"When the car industry disappeared, everybody was like, 'When is Daddy coming back?'" says Croquer. "He's never coming back."
There was a time when the DIA could rely on the auto industry to pay most of its bills. But Henry Ford didn't build endowments or sustainable funds, instead making institutions reliant in perpetuity. "He created this credit-card culture," Croquer says.
"In Seattle, where there's this history of bust and reinvention and bust and reinvention and bust and reinvention, there's the sense of being able to move forward," Croquer says he's observed. "In Detroit, people would say to me, 'I don't think that this can get any worse,' and I would say, 'I think it can.' ... I think in other parts of the country, obviously the rich are not entirely thrilled with the idea that they have to pick up the bill. But they don't have any model that somebody was paying the bill before... Of course, the foundations in Detroit have been injecting a lot of money hoping that they can revitalize the city and hoping that that very wealthy base is going to be a matching partner, and that's of course not happening."
The financial crisis is actually a civic crisis, Croquer says. It extends into all the city's major arts institutions, many of which carry debts that in other cities would be unthinkably large.
"I was very, very actively involved in this issue; I really got into the fiber of it," Croquer says. "One of the things that I learned is that you can't actually have a renewal if you don't have all the actors sitting at the table. To be able to turn a city around, you need to have the politicians, you need to have the private sector, you need to have the artists—everybody."
The City of Detroit is supposed to be deciding the fate of the art in the next few weeks.