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Dueling BlogBacks on Detroit Institute’s Endangered Collection: Michael Rush and James Maroney

MIchael Rush, founding director, Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

MIchael Rush, founding director, Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

The Detroit Institute of Arts’ current dire predicament appears to have given Michael Rush, founding director of Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum, traumatic flashbacks to the near-death experience of Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum, which he directed during the period when the Waltham, MA, museum and its collection were endangered by the university’s then severe financial difficulties.

Here is Rush’s response to my CultureGrrl post—From Millage to Pillage? Detroit Institute of Arts Confronts Possible Rape of Its Collection:

My blood curdled when I heard about the possible pillage of the DIA’s collection to rescue Detroit’s long slide into insolvency. Do we learn nothing from the mistakes of the past?

Brandeis was pilloried for its attempt to sell its collection (and close its venerable museum); the President, who had done so much for the university, lost his job over this ill-begotten scheme. The world responded loudly [three links are mine, not his] against the university.

While the situation and the circumstances of financial distress in Detroit are very different, the underlying principles remain the same: Art is held in the public trust and must not be considered a fungible asset. As you say, this may mean little to fiscal managers with a crisis on their hands; but it is precisely this crisis mentality that led Brandeis to attempt to sell its irreplaceable collection

Detroit, for all its woes, possesses a collection that few cities can boast of. The DIA is the pride of Detroit.

I applaud [DIA director] Graham Beal‘s forceful and very public defense of the collection. There is no other way to respond than to shout back in no uncertain terms. However, when all is said and done, it is the legal system that will either help you or destroy you.

In our case at Brandeis, I am convinced that our positive outcome occurred because we had a sympathetic Attorney General. She didn’t tip her hand publicly about the case brought by my former Board members, but she was always reassuring in meetings. The case was settled in my Board’s favor.

I do not know the situation in Michigan vis à vis the government’s possible involvement, but the Governor did appoint the fiscal manager. I can also say from personal experience that I know Governor Rick Snyder is very sympathetic to the arts. I gave him a long and personal tour of our new Eli and Edythe Broad Museum during opening weekend and he was most congenial and supportive. He also noticed the thousands of taxpaying voters people winding around the block to get inside and see art!

Whenever I am asked, I implore art museums to have their legal matters very clear when it comes to collections: Who really owns it? Can they liquidate it? It’s surprising how many institutions think they are safe but aren’t. Ethics standards are not enough. Clearly written safeguards are essential.

Hats off to Graham and the others in Detroit. The world is watching. Let’s not witness a new devastating (and, in this case, irrevocable) calamity in this great city.

James Maroney Jr., a Vermont-based dealer in American art, begs to differ:

Your post takes a very haughty view.

You write that “DIA’s operating agreement with the city would likely be of little or no consequence to creditors for whom cash, not Caravaggio, is king.” Everyone understands the value of an art collection to a great city, but is it really possible to have an art museum in a hollowed-out city? This particular city made promises, legal contracts with creditors—among whom are hundreds of thousands of working class pensioners—to pay their retirement and their healthcare into their old age.

Why now does the city deserve to abrogate its agreements with its pensioners so that the “people of Detroit” can keep the Caravaggio? Can you imagine making the argument to them [city employees] that the city has decided, after making a false promise, that reducing or slithering out of their pensions or healthcare payments in favor of keeping the Caravaggio is in their long term interests?

You might consider the integral value of the phrase “full faith and credit,” which is what stands behind Detroit’s contract obligations to its creditors, some of whom are pensioners who need cash to live, before declaring that keeping art is a higher value than keeping promises.

an ArtsJournal blog