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Motown Meltdown: WSJ’s Terry Teachout on Building a “No-Sale Consensus” for Detroit Institute’s Masterpieces

Terry Teachout

Author, critic and blogger Terry Teachout

In his opinion piece on the Detroit Institute of Arts’ uncertain future in today’s Wall Street Journal, author, critic (and fellow ArtsJournal blogger) Terry Teachout adds a useful corollary to the argument (which I had articulated, here) that any financial restructuring plan for city’s “postcrisis future” must (in Terry’s words) “preserve at least some of the things that help make the city worth living in”—notably, its eminent museum.

Terry took this line of reasoning a step further, arguing for the importance of developing “a no-sale consensus…among Detroit’s leadership class,” who would then try to “sell it to the public.”

It couldn’t hurt. Robust public support would be hard for decision makers to ignore. But ultimately, the opinion of the bankruptcy judge will matter most in determining the city’s and its museum’s fate. He, above all, needs to be swayed by the no-sale argument. Judge Steven Rhodes today is holding his second hearing for the city’s bankruptcy case.

Pundits (like Terry and me) will be pundits. But I am repeatedly reminded, by how the museum has navigated through these minefields, that the Detroit Institute’s supremely astute leadership doesn’t need any advice from us. In fact, journalists’ constant catastrophizing over a worst-case scenario for DIA’s masterpieces could be counterproductive, stimulating the salivary glands of hungry creditors.

Graham Beal, the museum’s put-upon but resilient director, said as much in his July 29 letter to the NY Times, in which he vented his exasperation over “two months of hectic [read, "overwrought"] coverage” and called upon journalists “to resist the temptation to jump to disaster scenarios [emphasis added] or to make the DIA’s singular and highly complicated situation part of a broader story about the structural challenges faced by museums in general.”

That last part was a reaction to Robin Pogrebin‘s astonishing story last week in the NY Times, wherein she suggested that the DIA “look to the experience of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science, which shut down in 2010, as an object lesson in the complex, painful process of dissolution.” Despite some superficial similarities (municipal ownership of the buildings and the museums’ status as a “local point of pride”), the characteristics, circumstances and management skills at these two museums couldn’t have been more different. And it’s irresponsibly premature to strategize a “painful process of dissolution” for the DIA.

Beal also made the argument (promulgated by Terry and me) that “a healthy DIA is, in fact, a crucial component in any recovery of the city of Detroit.” But then he bleakly prophesized a “disaster scenario” of his own:

Any successful effort to liquidate DIA art would precipitate a series of events likely to lead to its closing.

Without naming names, let me take that disaster scenario one step further: There are other important art museums in financially teetering American cities whose collections are owned, at least in part, by their municipalities. The “series of events” that “any successful effort to liquidate DIA art would precipitate” could include a snowball effect, endangering not only the DIA, but also other museums.

What happens in Detroit might not stay in Detroit—another reason why the DIA’s collection must stay in Detroit.

an ArtsJournal blog