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My NPR Soundbite on Detroit Institute of Arts’ “Grand Bargain”

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Elizabeth Blair, senior producer on Arts Desk of NPR News

Did you have better things to do this Christmas morning than listening to me on NPR? If so, you can now hear me here (starting at 3:08), near the end of the segment on the Detroit Institute of Arts by NPR‘s Elizabeth Blair, which aired on “Morning Edition.” (Click the arrow to the left of the audio bar below.)


For the transcript of the full segment (accompanied by another of those stomach-turning shopping-list slideshows), go here.

To be clear, I don’t object to NPR‘s or the Detroit Free Press‘ posting of images of the endangered works from the DIA’s collection, along with their Christie’s-appraised (but highly questionable) market values. That’s publicly available information and a legitimate part of a news story.

Still, I doubt I’m alone in feeling a visceral sense of revulsion at the sight of these cherished, indispensable cultural treasures stripped naked as disposable financial assets.

I’m also uncomfortable with the perpetuation of the misconception (voiced on NPR by Michael Mulholland, vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 207, representing some of Detroit’s employees) that this is an art vs. pensions battle. Elizabeth twice asked me to address that issue during our conversation. Although it didn’t make it onto the broadcast, here’s what I said. (I have the recording, because we used a nifty “Report-IT” app that gave our phone conversation studio-like sound quality and also saved the audio of my comments to my iPhone):

The pensioners are among the many, many creditors, not to mention the lawyers who have to get paid, who have a stake, who have skin in this game. So making it a one-and-one thing between the museum’s art and the pensioners is already a grave misconception….

It’s wrong to put this as an “either-or” between pensions and art. There are so many other players here. It makes it sound like this mean museum is holding onto its art while people are starving. It’s not that. Everybody has been asked by the emergency manager [Kevyn Orr] to step up to the plate. It looks likely, from what the judge has said so far, that the pensioners may have to be part of that restructuring.

Nobody’s going to come out whole here. The city is broken and everyone is going to have to do his part. Probably there will be some litigation for a while and then everyone’s going to realize that they’re going to have to settle this, which is how these things usually play out. The Detroit Institute of Arts is now trying to do its part in contributing to the solution. It’s trying to come up with exactly the amount of money [$500,000] that the emergency manager said it should supply.

As I said in the part of my comments that did get into NPR’s report, whether the proponents of the “Grand Bargain” will be able to come up with that amount in a short period of time is yet to be determined.

And if they succeed, will this have the desired effect of permanently insulating the collection from those who might wish to monetize it? Or will other Detroit stakeholders continue to exert pressure for art to be sold, as an easy way to come up with additional cash?

an ArtsJournal blog