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The Sunday Dialogue: What Didn’t Get Published — UPDATED

As I suspected, Frank Robinson’s “Invitation to A Dialogue,” the results of which are published in the Review section of today’s New York Times, elicited responses about the situation of the Detroit Institute of Arts in the midst the city’s bankruptcy, no matter what he later said his intentions were. And predictably, they only reinforced the false dichotomy he posed in his invitation. A chance to shed light on the issue has been lost.

Interestingly enough, Robinson wrote ” a private note (not for publication)” to me after my post, presumably by way of explanation. Why it has to be private is beyond me (you can imagine for yourself), but I will honor his request and say only that he might have got better responses in the Times had he stated his supposed goal more articulately. Instead, the Dialogue was, of course, headlined Sell Masterpieces to Help Save a City? So much for intentions.

The good news: of the five responses published today (including one co-authored by Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and current president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, and Christine Anagnos, the executive director, just two advocate a sale of DIA’s paintings. Read them at the link above.

A few RCA readers copied me on the letters they sent to the Times, and I told them that I would print the unpublished ones here, along with one of my favorite (of many) works in the DIA’s galleries.

UPDATE, 8/13– Scroll down for the letter just sent to me by Karen Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Pieter_Bruegel_de_Oude_-_De_bruiloft_dans_(Detroit)From Amy Whitaker, Art Business Faculty, The Sotheby’s Institute, and author of Museum Legs:

Regarding Detroit, it is a false choice between pensions and art.  Rather, it is a riddle of art and economics that can only be solved by the lever of governance.

If pension shortfalls truly represent a triage moment, where saving lives must triumph over making lives worth saving, then the sale of the collection is a form of amputation that requires surgical precision and governance: one group to set a dollar goal, another to set criteria for selecting art for sale, another with veto power, and time lines with consequences.  Process is the only base sturdy enough to support an outcome as risky as demolishing the original Penn Station.

To explain the riddle: My father, a scientist, used to get asked how he and my mother, an English professor, got along being in such different fields.  He would say that he was in the business of saving lives but she was in the business of making lives worth saving. In actual fact, he worked on quality of life issues like debilitating headaches, and she imparted life survival skills like being able to write in complete sentences.

Art and economics have this relationship.  They cannot be neatly untangled.  Museums are not justified by their impact on tax revenue but by their connection to human creativity—the same creativity that spurs innovation and its much larger economic impact (i.e., the whole reason America has been a great nation).

Museums harness the creativity of today by stewarding that of the past. Creativity is the only long-term engine of economic growth there is.

Public collections of art also represent the dignity of protecting things that cannot easily be measured, against things like budget shortfalls that can.

We would be served by thinking about funding the arts the way we think about funding basic science.

From Randall Bourscheidt, former Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Affairs and Chairman of the Advisory Commission for Cultural Affairs in New York City:

Frank Robinson’s suggestion that works of art be weighed against human lives — the entirely false comparison he makes in the sad case of Detroit’s bankruptcy — reflects a misunderstanding of the value of both. How could a former museum director confuse the market value of individual paintings with the cultural value of public institutions like museums?

There are at least two good reasons to keep the Detroit Institute of Arts collection intact:  first, it is one of the reasons why tourists visit the city and spend money; second, its survival — like that of libraries and parks and community centers and houses of worship and schools and universities — will be a beacon of hope to the people of Detroit who are enduring this time of hardship.  The first value can be measured in dollars, like the sale of art works; the second can only be measured by the citizens of Detroit.  Let’s hope that Detroit does not set the precedent of selling off its patrimony.

From Jennifer Vorbach, art advisor and independent curator:

Picture this: I am standing looking at a vitrine of Calders next to a stranger, next to a young African American teenager whose outward appearance strongly signals rebellion and inner city toughness. He’s clearly come with his school, to the National Gallery, on a Wednesday morning, as the room is teeming with similar kids.  In front of us is a sculpture
entitled “Funghi Neri.” He turns to me and asks: “I wonder what Funghi Neri means.” When I tell him that it means black mushrooms in Italian, he beams and says “well, maybe I should learn Italian.”

Looking at art in public collections opens many portals for many people. It enhances the human experience, and tells of life by visual means, generation after generation. One cannot equate the admittedly vital but transient benefits of pensions with the enduring experience of culture.

From Brian A. Oard, writer:

In Frank Robinson’s letter of 8/5/13, “Invitation to a Dialogue,” he  correctly refers to the situation at the Detroit Institute of Arts as  “agonizing” even as he retails a thoroughly bogus, demagogic argument based upon  a false choice between art and pensions. The argument implies that selling the  DIA collection would be a panacea for all that ails Detroit. In reality, it  would likely be no solution at all. At best, the ‘worst case scenario’  mega-auction will give the city a one-time infusion of cash comparable to a  crackhead’s head-cracking rush. When the hit wears off, Detroit will be left  with yet another big empty building, and all the longterm problems that led to  this mess will remain unaddressed.
On Aug.6, the DIA released a statement predicting that any forced sale of  art would precipitate the rapid demise of the DIA.” To read an  art museum’s prediction of its own imminent “demise” is a uniquely chilling  experience. There’s certainly nothing new or unusual about the traditional  American philistinism that looks at one of the world’s great aesthetic treasure  houses and sees little more than an overflowing chest of pirate’s gold, but the  actions of Detroit’s soi-disant City Manager are evidence of a truly  astounding stupidity. Instead of selling or leasing or loaning or whatever else the  auctioneers and authoritarians have in mind, Detroit should be using the stellar  DIA collection as a crystal around which the depressed and depressing downtown  can be reinvented. Instead of an auction, the city needs an ad campaign to  generate international tourist revenue by informing the world of all the  masterpieces hidden behind the DIA’s imposing façade. Here, off the top of my  head, are a few taglines for such a campaign:
  • “You don’t have to go to  Paris to see Van Gogh.”
  • “You don’t have to go to  Rome to see Michelangelo.”
  • “You don’t have to go to  France to see Cezanne.”
  • “You don’t have to go to  Mexico to see Diego Rivera.”
  • “Come to Detroit and see the  world.”
Most Americans, even most  citizens of Michigan, have no idea of the excellence of the Detroit collection.  The DIA is a large, encyclopedic museum containing countless artworks that would  be the envy of any art museum in the world, even the Met or the Louvre. It is  home to Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals, generally considered to  be the artist’s most important surviving work north of the Rio Grande. In the  European galleries alone, the DIA holds perhaps the best late Titian in America  (Judith with the Head of Holofernes), two of Michelangelo’s preparatory  sketches for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Breughel’s The Wedding Dance (one of only two major paintings by Brueghel in American collections), Fuseli’s  iconic masterpiece The Nightmare, four major paintings by Van Gogh,  including a self-portrait and one of the portraits of Postman Roulin, a late  Cezanne still life of three skulls, a small panel by Jan van Eyck, and many more  priceless works. If these works go to the auction block, they will likely be  lost to the public and hidden away in the high-security warehouses where Russian  oil oligarchs store their artistic investments. Such a sale will be an act of  cultural looting comparable to those that occurred in Europe during the dark  days of 1933-45. It will snuff out one of the last signal fires of hope still  burning in downtown Detroit. It will be an American tragedy.
From Karen Hopkins, president of BAM:

I find it incredibly hard to understand why support for the arts is so undervalued in this country. It is especially difficult to grasp why culture is continually branded as elite, as it has been by Mr. Frank Robinson, Museum Director at Williams College – clearly an institution that may in fact specifically serve only the 1%. Having working in Brooklyn for 34 years, I can emphatically say that many arts organizations serve a much broader and diverse population and that it is unfair to pit the arts vs. hunger or the arts vs. world peace or the arts vs. social service programs. The arts have a unique and enduring value as seen in great works from Shakespeare to Picasso, from Toni Morrison to Marina Abromavic, from Amy Herzog to Werner Herzog.

The arts are one of the few aspects of civilization that stand the test of time. But, putting aside the transformational, enduring power of great art and just focusing on the practical side, creativity enhances education and the love of learning. The arts build communities and encourage connection among diverse groups of people in a positive way. Arts organizations and programs generate tourism and drive the economy of neighborhoods, breathing new life and energy into areas in need of revitalization (Brooklyn is a great example!). The arts build self-confidence and encourage thinking outside of the box.

When you think about it, for a relatively modest public and private investment, the arts are the best deal in town.

The debate continues.
Photo Credit: Bruegel’s The Wedding Dance 



  1. Michael Black says:

    Brian Oard is not exaggerating in his assessment of the highlights of the DIA. What is remarkable about Detroit’s collection of old master paintings, however, is its remarkable breadth and depth. For every big name, there are a dozen secondary artists represented – and these have been hung methodically on the museum’s walls, instead of languishing in storage. Visitors may explore representative works of entire national schools, rather than make do with works by a few major artists.

    We may be thankful to an earlier director of the DIA, Wilhelm Valentiner, who learnt this scholarly approach personally from the man who first developed it – Wilhelm Bode. The DIA should be seen as the New World progeny of Bode’s Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Berlin (which was enormously influential in museological circles). Valentiner would systematically fill in the collection’s gaps, in an attempt to ensure that the names of the labels on his museum walls would correspond with those in art history books. Visitors will notice far fewer lacunae at Detroit than at nearby museums such as Cleveland and Chicago, which own more ‘masterpieces’ but cannot match Detroit’s comprehensiveness in the old masters field.

    By definition, encyclopedic collections are complete. If the cream of Detroit’s holdings is sold off, the public will not only be deprived of the chance to view these works; it will also lack the opportunity to experience the full breadth and depth of what currently is one of North America’s few truly encyclopedic collections of old master paintings. The only indisputably superior collections are at the National Gallery of Art and the Met. For decades, the latter displayed its old masters in a shameful way. Only in the last few months have the Met’s pre-1800 European paintings been publicly shown in the same coherent and comprehensive manner that has long prevailed at Detroit and Berlin.

    • Dear Sirs,
      Art museums preserve and present our culture and times; help us understand our history and that of
      other countries and cultures; protect our freedom of expression; enrich and ennoble us.

      Museums encourage us to understand the past, appreciate the present and influence the future.

      In a recent visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts, I was more than impressed with its galleries, collections
      and exhibitions as, in a decaying city, the museum holds out hope for better times in the future.

      Director Emeritus, Cranbrook Art Museum
      Former Director, Corcoran Gallery of Art
      Honorary Member AAMD

      Clearwater FL

  2. The real problem with selling the works of a public institution like DIA is that they will, in all likelihood, go completely out of circulation. In becoming the prized possessions of the 1%, and thus, nothing more than exotic commodities or toys, access to them will thus be denied to everyone except an extremely privileged few. In my opinion, nobody really needs to own art, but we all desperately need access to it.

  3. J. Patrice Marandel says:

    I am a retiree of the City of Detroit where I worked as a Curator for 13 years. I am getting $543.00 / month from the City – the result of having been shifted back and forth between the City and the private sector of the museum (and losing that part of the pension in the process). I read with attention everything about Detroit. Suddenly that minute pension seems more important to me than ever. I read the nonsense : Sell the Diego Rivera murals ? Well, these are frescoes. You may as well suggest selling the whole building and make that the center of a Marriott Court Hotel. Sell the Breugel, don’t sell the Breugel. People grandstanding about the value of art: Kunst ûber alles! shout people who have never set foot in the DIA, let alone Detroit. Let me say it straight: It would be absurd to sell the DIA paintings, demoralizing for the Detroiters, a disaster for the museum that could not possibly attract gifts any longer. Is that all Detroit have : a bunch of expensive paintings, and a pension fund which we are now asked to defend through lawyers we have to hire. Let’s save both. The paintings must stay in Detroit and we are entitled to the pensions we have paid for. Lawyers or no lawyers. What people must ask, instead of being shocked by the prospect of selling art the way the Soviets did in 1927 to avoid another economic crisis (it did not help), is help from the Federal government. That what good government is for. The same government that bailed out the banks and propped up the auto companies has to understand that there are cities too big to fail. This has to be done, and leave the art and the pensions in place.

  4. Joshua Reynolds says:

    Dear Patrice,
    Help from the Federal government??? Sure, let’s all pay for the screw-ups of the Detroit politicians. What they did was to get them elected again. They have been digging this hole for decades. If anyone should pay for this it is the politicians, out of their bulging pockets. Not the Federal government.

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