Selling Detroit’s Patrimony
Virginia Postrel makes the case for the city of Detroit selling off its museum pieces to pay its debts. Postrel says that if she lived in Detroit, she would be appalled by the prospect too, but it’s hard to justify firewalling an art collection from sale by a city that cannot pay its bills. She writes:
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.
It turns out that the city — that is, the taxpayers of the city — really did pay for many of the treasures at the Detroit Institute of Arts, to a degree that’s unusual for a museum. Postrel says records show that many of the artworks were bought with city funds, not donated by private individuals. What’s more, the DIA has much lower attendance than museums in thriving American cities. Is it really the case that the public good is served by keeping these artworks housed in a museum that many fewer people visit than other museums where they might be displayed? The good of the people of Detroit would be served, I suppose, but that’s not the same as the public good. I think this point by Postrel is important:
Rather than an offense against art, a properly structured sale would represent a public-spirited update of how the art came to Detroit and other U.S. cities in the first place: as a way of providing liquidity to Europeans in need of cash. “The second world war has opened up an opportunity such as may never come again,” the DIA’s director wrote unabashedly in 1948. “Great private collections which have been held intact for a hundred years or more are being broken up.” Detroit is like an aristocratic estate forced to adjust to changing times. It can’t marry an heiress, but it might find some lucratively appreciative new homes for some of its heirlooms.
Art is many things, one of which is property. It must have been heartbreaking for those old European families to sell paintings and sculptures that had been in their possession for ages, but hard times force hard choices. Their loss was the gain of American museums, including, as Postrel shows, the DIA.
My guess is that the more serious objection to the proposed DIA sale is emotional and psychological: that doing so would be a crippling blow to Detroit’s confidence, and would signal that the city really is in profound decline. Then again, this is not news, and hasn’t been for a while. It would be a terrific comedown for what was once a great and powerful city, but again, this happens. Venice is not what she once was. Neither is New Orleans.
A city which once had a first-rate art museum but no longer does is unquestionably a diminished city. But then, so is a city that cannot afford to pay its bills.