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Detroit Institute Debate: Judith Dobrzynski’s Misunderstanding of Frank Robinson’s Nuanced NY Times Letter

Frank Robinson last year at Cornell University's Johnson Museum Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Frank Robinson last year at Cornell University’s Johnson Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

UPDATE: Robinson responds, clearing up the confusion.

As a Cornell University alumna who has had the highest regard for Frank Robinson‘s 19-year stewardship of my alma mater’s Johnson Museum, I was shocked and saddened when I read a Real Clear Arts post yesterday by my fellow ArtsJournal blogger, Judith Dobrzynski, who blasted Robinson for for his NY Times letter—Invitation to a Dialogue in Hard Times—regarding the debate about whether to sell the Detroit Institute of Art’s masterpieces to help defray the city’s debts and obligations.

Quoting the provocative kicker at the end of Robinson’s letter—“How many lives is a Rembrandt worth?”—Judith leads her readers to believe that Robinson favors art sales in Detroit. Frank happens to be a Rembrandt specialist, and I would have thought that if anyone from the university ever tried to remove the Rembrandt etchings to pay down Cornell’s debt (which, of course, has never happened), he would have personally barred the door.

Then I read Robinson’s full (above-linked) letter, and realized that Real Clear Arts had a Real Muddled Understanding of what Frank actually wrote.

Let’s give the kicker its context:

Museums make a determined effort to widen their audience — the Detroit Institute of Arts is a leader in that effort — but we are still falling short. The shortfall is where that agonizing question arises [emphasis added]: How many lives is a Rembrandt worth?

In other words, museums (especially in hard times) are always going to be grappling with the “agonizing question” of art-vs.-lives, unless they can make an airtight case for their worth to a diverse community, not primarily to “the affluent, the educated, the converted,” in Robinson’s words. It is this “shortfall” in “widen[ing] their audience” that Robinson believes has not yet been adequately addressed by museums, notwithstanding vigorous outreach efforts in Detroit and elsewhere. (NOTE: I have not consulted Robinson in preparing this post, but merely relied on my own close reading of his text.)

Reasonable people can disagree with Robinson about whether museums’ outreach efforts have been sufficiently energetic and effective. But the retired Johnson director never states (nor do I think he ever implies) that museums in hard-pressed communities should sell their art.

Robinson’s letter has to be understood in the grand tradition of probing, provocative intellectual inquiry. He likes to play devil’s advocate to himself—advancing a compelling (but, to his mind, wrong-headed) point of view, and then knocking it down with a stronger (and more nuanced) counter-argument.

He did just that in a 2006 article for the Johnson Museum’s newsletter (which I wrote about here), where he acknowledged the “powerful argument against repatriation of ancient objects to their countries of origin,” and then went on to conclude that “if we traffic in things that we know are stolen or smuggled, …we risk compromising our mission—the very point of why we collect in the first place—and we risk being perceived as no better than the thieves and smugglers themselves.”

Far from supporting the monetization of collections, Robinson, I believe, wants museums to position themselves to make the most convincing argument for preserving them—that they should be understood and valued as a community asset, not a financial one.

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