UPDATE: For my take on Peter Schjeldahl‘s subsequent retraction, go here.
There has been an astonishing amount of wrongheaded commentary—ranging from clueless to the pernicious—regarding the severe threat to the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection that could be triggered by the city’s bankruptcy. With one exception, I don’t wish to dignify this foolishness with links that would provide further exposure.
The exception, because it was to me (and many readers) the most astonishing and unexpected, is the muddled argument by the New Yorker‘s deservedly esteemed art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, in favor of sacrificing the museum’s collection to pay off the city’s debts. He simplifies this complicated situation as an either/or between retaining what he calls “one of America’s best encyclopedic museums” and impoverishing the city’s pensioners. This mistaken assumption leads him to a confused conclusion—that, regardless of who owns it, the “art will survive” (albeit perhaps under less appropriate conditions for its survival and for its public appreciation) but “the pensioner will not” (unless he gets the funds that he had expected to receive).
The most fatuous journalistic responses I’ve seen include one that provided a shopping list of the DIA’s greatest masterpieces and how much they might fetch, and several art-market pieces suggesting that dumping some of the world’s greatest masterpieces on the market at one time might (gasp!) depress prices. Excoriating Christie’s as a “vulture” for its possible willingness to appraise and/or sell the collection is also pointless: Divorce, death and debt are three big drivers of auction houses’ business. It’s the auctioneers’ job to insure that the property they accept is authentic and that the seller is legally entitled to sell it (i.e., has good title). Other than that, they provide a marketplace: It’s not part of their job description to be moral arbiters of what should or should not be sold.
Both houses have brokered sales of museum treasures that, to my mind, should never have been deaccessioned. The fault lies with the sellers, not their agents.
The most compelling, fundamental argument for keeping the DIA intact, rather than allowing the city’s creditors to eviscerate it, is directly tied to one of the hoped-for benefits from a declaration of bankruptcy—giving the city a new start and a second chance. If that’s the ultimate goal, then why allow Detroit’s dysfunctionality to destroy one of the few well-functioning, upbeat institutions that buoy minds and spirits, young and old, rich and poor? If allowed to survive, it would be a desperately needed point-of-pride during the early stages of regenerating this once thriving metropolis.
That the museum enjoys robust community support was vividly demonstrated less than a year ago with voters’ passage of a property levy (millage) to help fund museum operations for 10 years. As always, DIA’s director, Graham Beal, here proved himself to be a resourceful museum administrator and respected community leader, under the toughest of circumstances.
In trying to put a shattered Detroit back together again, it makes no sense whatsoever to decimate one very precious piece that still isn’t broken. The art must remain on its walls.