Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Rescuing" the Detroit Institute of Arts (with a commentary by Michael Hall)

The Detroit Institute of Arts (Photo: Andrew Jameson, Creative Commons Attribution-Share  Alike 3.0)
The latest maneuver in the ongoing City of Detroit bankruptcy is the plan put forth by Court-appointed mediator Judge Gerald Rosen under which donors would put up $500 million to "rescue" the Detroit Institute of Arts, whose encyclopedic collection has been threatened by liquidation to satisfy creditors in what is the largest municipal Chapter 9 proceeding in US history. Under the plan, major foundations with a vested interest in culture and the city of Detroit, such as the Ford, Kresge, and John S. and James L. Knight Foundations, would pool funds to essentially ransom the museum from the mandate of Emergency Manager Kevin Orr to monetize the collection by any means necessary, including auctioning off masterworks by Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Picasso, and Van Gogh. The plan also calls for the DIA, currently a department of the City of Detroit government, to be "spun off" and reorganized as an independent nonprofit institution.

The plan is said to satisfy the quandary of "art vs. pensions," which has pitted local patrons of culture against current and future municipal retirees while conveniently leaving the interests of Wall Street investment bankers off the table. It also resolves a governance issue I identified some 20 years ago in a New Art Examiner article titled "DIA in Decline" (Feb./Mar. 1992:29-31), written at the time of another fiscal crisis for the museum when state funding was drastically cut after the election of ultra-conservative Republican John Engler as governor of Michigan. In the article, I charted two trajectories for the evolution of the museum's structure, regionalization or privatization. The former would have established regional taxation and oversight, recognizing the museum's place in the public culture of Southeast Michigan and beyond. The latter was said to facilitate, among other things, private fundraising efforts among the patron class who were and are based primarily in the affluent suburbs. I opined that regionalization was the more democratic option but thought that privatization would be the more likely outcome. Should the current plan succeed, the DIA will in effect enjoy the best of both worlds, a regional funding base for operations from the tax revenues of a recently adopted millage while securing control of the museum away from the municipal bureaucracy to which wealthy trustees had ceded jurisdiction after the First World War.

In response to the news of the plan initially floated by Judge Rosen, noted artist, critic, and curator Michael Hall, a longtime Detroit-area resident, issued the following statement:

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Michael Hall (Photo: courtesy of the artist)
In a nifty move right out of the Reagan Revolution playbook, the governor of Michigan and his hand picked bankruptcy fixer finally revealed their plan for monetizing the art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  The plan is brilliant in its simplicity and in its political nuance.

After months of hinting that the art in the museum was “on the table” for a liquidation that would generate cash to offset Detroit’s many debt obligations, the lords of the bankruptcy relented and “saved” the museum.  Their idea basically runs like this:  Art is worth money (they got an appraisal to prove it).  People who like art have money.  Thus, why not present the museum with a bill that would equate to the appraised value of its precious art and let the museum tap its rich friends across America for contributions that would pay the tab and keep the paintings on the Institute’s walls. 

How perfect!  How painless!  How noble! This is the ideal “public/private partnership” we are always hearing about!  In short, since elites like art and since the common working folk of the city are seeing their pensions cut, why not let the elites pony up for the city and the State in the interest of the “good of the many.”  State to the museum:  “You ‘Culture Vultures’ go have a bake sale - or whatever you need to do - and bring us back the ransom payment as specified.  Thank you.”

The Snyder/Orr plan is the perfect product of the anti-culture, anti-education, anti-intellectual tone of contemporary American political discourse. As an artist and an educator, I recognize (and fear) the messaging in the “museum rescue” scheme that has been put forward in Michigan.  My view of the plan contends that it is totally predicated on the belief that the public has no stake whatsoever in the art at the museum - or in the museum, itself, as a “public institution.”  This seems curious in light of the fact that the three counties surrounding the museum recently voted in favor of voluntarily taxing themselves to provide substantial, ongoing financial support for the Institute – support that had been systematically withdrawn by several decades of art-hostile governors and legislatures in the state capital.

The political embrace of the arts that fired the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1960s, has dramatically eroded and is presently at a new low. Reagan era antagonism toward public education and the arts now has a permanent face in our contemporary political conversation. “Culture” and the humanities have become the targets of a class envy that has been skillfully manipulated to fuel the anger component of the new American populism.  A business driven consumer culture does not need art and there is a concerted effort afoot to rile up Detroit’s public against it.  The drumbeat has been incessant: “Art or pensions – but you can’t have both!” 

So the idea of “spinning off” the museum to a rich elite that can pamper itself with luxuries and baubles in gold frames is a perfect fix for the Motor City.  Curiously, I don’t remember anybody suggesting that because Jay Leno is rich and likes cars, that he (instead of the government) should have bailed out G.M.  Oh, yes, I forgot, that was about “jobs.”

The question, “who needs Picasso?” remains unanswered in the newly revealed Detroit bankruptcy plan.  But one thing is sure, the governor and his team of practical problem solvers have sent a message that translates directly into: “Let them eat Dancing With The Stars!”

Michael D. Hall
Hamtramck, MI
Dec. 5, 2013

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Extricating the museum from the scorched-earth politics of the municipal bankruptcy proceeding is an incontrovertible benefit for the region and beyond, preserving an irreplaceable piece of cultural patrimony that has been more than 125 years in the making. What's lamentable, though, is how the city's commonwealth -- of which the museum is one component and public pensions are another, along with Belle Isle, public transit, the Water and Sewerage Department, etc. -- is being put on the table in service to the economic order David Harvey terms "accumulation by dispossession." This process has been ongoing in Detroit for years -- the tens of thousands of single-family houses that have been abandoned in the city since the 1970s with the homeowners losing whatever equity they had being one of the most visible indicators. The progressive rolling back of governmental support for the museum, also starting in the '70s and continuing up to the passing of the tricounty millage, is additionally symptomatic. Using the language of venture capitalists, where operating units are "spun off" and fixed assets "monetized" in search of revenue generation, reveals the mindset at work. If the rescue plan succeeds and the museum can be saved, things will have worked out. Others at risk may not be so fortunate.

UPDATE -- DECEMBER 18, 2013: The last paragraph of this blog post, originally published on December 8, 2013, and republished on The Huffington Post, has been revised for clarity.


  1. eerily silent on the comments here... have you heard any promising alternatives to “Art or pensions"? I haven't heard any serious movement towards letting banks or creditors take a hit...

    I hear more people talking about how only 5% of the collection is actually city owned and therefore it's not going to be the biggest loss, (I wish people knew that at most, museums have 10% of their collection out on view, so someone should make a video where all the artwork is gone, but don't worry it's only 5% of the collection) while others have floated the conspiracy that the Diego Rivera murals will be the first to be taken off the walls which seems like so much hyperbole that it can't be helpful to come up with a more viable option than privatization...

    What's next? Will we all collectively look back on this time and think to ourselves... well that sucked.

    Perhaps this will teach some people that artists can't vote republican?

    To me it would seem that the best way to go forward would be to point out the bad math that the judge said himself: selling all/some the work doesn't cover enough debt to make up for the potential lawsuits/counties pulling their millage out/losing visitors to the city/donors trusting that it is a safe place to donate or invest in/keeping the DIA open since I assume that there will be a strike of some sort?

    Where is the outcry about how much bullshit art vs. pensions is anyways? Maybe George Bush should donate some of his new paintings to the DIA it's changed how some people think of that guy...

    1. Cedric, The media narrative has been well controlled it seems. There is no coverage of art and pensions against the bondholders, AKA Main Street vs. Wall Street. All things considered, the privatization scheme may be least bad option. $500 M to ransom the museum isn't a bad deal to fix the governance issue. But it's still disheartening. There's also the bigger story of the war of attrition that has been conducted against Detroit since the postwar suburban expansion, part of the motivation being to demassify the urban core to weaken union power.

    2. I wish it was as simple as an us vs. them. All of "them," union bosses and Wall Street have the same agenda: to line their own pockets as hope in the American Dream continues to be sweetened with lies and presented as opportunity.

    3. I think it's pretty obvious to many that the American Dream ain't what it used to be. Hence the Tea Party on the one hand and Occupy on the other. I think there are some things that can be clarified. Unions are in a subservient position to investors. Using the gangster analogy, they're the capos where the Wall Street traders are underbosses.

  2. the 'annihilation of space through time'

  3. Yes, the daily wage as the source of alienation from property.

  4. The lower the wage, the greater the alienation