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Peter Schjeldahl Is Mistaken, I Believe

hragLike many in the art world — take a look on Facebook — I was surprised that Peter Schjeldahl wrote on the New Yorker website that he favored the sale of the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection to pay the city’s creditors. I saw the headline, wondered what this esteemed art critic had to say, and immediately read the piece, to see what I had been missing in this argument.

As it turns out, nothing. I was amazed by the shallowness of the piece. Sure enough, I was not the only one. Before I could even contemplate how to respond here, an email from Hyperalleric landed in my mailbox, with a piece by Hrag Vartanian (at left). It begins:

Would New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl suggest that Greece sell the Parthenon to pay its crippling national debt? How about Italy or Spain or Portugal or Ireland, which have financial problems of their own — should they sell off national treasures, maybe a national forest, or part of their coastline to pay creditors? The stodgy critic known for his purple prose seems to have, obliviously or not, penned a poisonous exhibit A for justifying the shameless “asset stripping” of a museum collection held in trust for the public. …

…It’s worth noting that Schjeldahl’s post on the New Yorker website is without any real facts that demonstrate the dangers Detroit is facing, and it is mostly filled with vague notions of culture and concern for retirees…

With that, I agree (hence my surprise). Vartanian says of the sale, “I personally don’t think it will” happen — and I agreed from the start of this. Now I am not so sure. I think the art may have been put on the table in some sort of political game of chicken. But that game could not be stopped once the number of players in it increased dramatically to include powerful creditors. They, let’s face it, are only about the money. The governor, emergency manager, mayor and other pols do have other considerations — like the future of the city. Looks as if they should never has started this, because it can no longer be contained.


  1. Mark Stryker says

    Hi Judy — I don’t think the political chicken analogy holds. The art wasn’t “put” on the table so much as that, as a city asset, it was always on the table if perhaps hidden in plain sight. The creditors knew from the start that there could significant money at the museum and appear to have been pressing for it from the moment the starter’s pistol went off. The emergency manager may or may not in the end decide to require the DIA contribute financially to the restructuring — i.e. sell art — and he and the judge will obviously face pressure from creditors. But if the E.M. had never told the museum in the first place the art It’s a complicated dance. I tried to get at this in this story from a few weeks ago:

    Thanks for paying attention and for linking to our stories.

    • Perhaps not, Mark — but for a while, it wasn’t topic A, and then it was mentioned prominently by Bill Nowling, I think, and suddenly it was the asset everyone was talking about, at least outside of Detroit. On June 13, I mentioned the politics, too — noting that we reporters hadn’t yet figured out the political game. Then your story, above, was published and we knew more. But I’m not yet convinced that Orr and Nowling had thought through the way their handling of the art as an asset would play out. On the other hand, you’re there, and I’m looking from afar.

  2. The artworks most at risk for sale are the ones purchased by the city of Detroit (that is, the ones not donated to the museum). The Free Press published a list of these masterpieces and it is very sobering:

    Among the masterpieces that might conceivably be sold: Brueghel’s Wedding Dance; van Gogh’s Self Portrait; Rembrandt’s The Visitation; Church’s Cotopaxi; Van Eyck’s Saint Jerome; and Poussin’s “Selene and Endymion.” Any museum on the world would be thrilled to get any one of them (as would, of course, collectors with incredibly deep pockets). These are world-class paintings and everyone in the U.S. would be a loser if they left the country. But I can’t imagine any American museum with the resources to buy them at auction, not even the Getty.

  3. Mark Stryker says

    I see part of my previous note got garbled. For clarity, what I wanted to say was: If the E.M. had never explicitly told the museum the art was vulnerable, or if he never acknowledged the art was a city-owned asset, then it would have been even harder to establish enough trust with creditors to hammer out a deal — and it would have made it easier for creditors to make the case to a judge that the city was hiding sources of revenue. As you note, there’s a distinction between the way the negotiation strategies may be unfolding behind closed doors and the way they appear to be unfolding in public viz. media commentators and the creation of a narrative from afar. Of course, it is possible that Orr was not expecting the kind of hue and cry over the art that has ensued since we first broke the story that his representatives had met with DIA leaders to tell them the art was vulnerable and that they might be expected to pony up at least $20M annually for the next 10 years.

  4. This whole notion is absurd. Why doesn’t Detroit sell Belle Isle or some of the park lands, how about city hall? All of these are city assets. Ugh, the mention of this as a possibility is so infuriating.

  5. Christopher Crosman says

    As a life long art museum educator, curator and director, I was initially appalled by Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker piece. However, Schjeldalh is expressing the longer, wider humanist perspective. I have to concur with him that presented with a choice between dead object and human being, it’s not even “a close call;” certainly not for the vast majority of those personally affected by literally life and death commitments made to them by the city and people of Detroit. Schjeldahl may not present a more nuanced and closely argued case because at the end of the day there is only one humane response. Then, again, respecting his gift for ambiguous argument, might solomonic consequences provoke more enlightened solutions all around? That’s not shallow; that’s sanity. Of course, we all lament that so much of the conversation around art these days revolves around its monetization. Perhaps, when the value of art was spoken of in terms of its own essential humanist content, Detroit would never have considered its art collection to be a financial asset and the current question moot.

  6. Jacquelynn Baas says

    I’m surprised museums and AAMD haven’t come out more publicly on this. If it happens–any part of it–donors will think twice before giving their collections to a museum. The unthinkable suddenly has become thinkable. No one can predict the future. Your beloved Rembrandt or Jeff Koons could end up in Qatar!

  7. I can’t believe Schjeldahl wrote it or that The New Yorker published it. Seems so incongruous with their supposedly “cultural” positions. I wonder if there is something behind this that will eventually come out; since I can’t fathom it being a “genuine” opinion.

  8. Jim VanKirk says

    The contention that the lives of anyone hangs in the balance, a balance created by the possession of a collection of Art objects, is absurd and Schjeldahl should be embarassed to have bought into that argument.

  9. When Kevyn Orr arrived in Detroit, he called on DIA Inc. to “look at forming some covenants in ways that would monetize the value of the asset there but keep the art here in Detroit.”* That call went public in late May, but the media have not explored just what Orr’s call means. Instead, the discussion focuses on selling versus not selling. Those are not the only choices. Art finance innovators have developed various options Detroit can consider.

    Since Detroit owns its DIA artworks and Kevyn Orr is ultimately in charge of their disposition, an informed discussion should what options may earn cash from DIA artworks on DIA walls. The media haven’t even begun to inform the public on the range of options Detroit’s workout plan can offer to the bankruptcy judge… except to point to the DIA, which is Detroit’s only substantial asset that is not already pledged to the special-revenue bondholders that Kevyn Orr wants to keep whole.

    * (see 00:52 to 01:12)

  10. Just read Schjeldahl changed his position to “don’t sell.” Comforting, but I’ll have the grain of salt handy when I read him in the future. There has to be another way to take care of Detroit’s pensioners.

  11. Joe Donovan says
  12. Where is the museum board in all of this?

  13. I don’t understand why some corporations are considered “too big to fail,” yet a major U.S. city faces a death knell. Where are the forces like the state of Michigan, the U.S. government, and the car companies (now profitable, thanks to federal intervention and the improving economy) that could/should help with restructuring the debt on a sustainable, long-term basis? What am I missing here?

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