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Interestingly enough, Robinson wrote ” a private note (not for publication)” to me after my post, presumably by way of explanation.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A few RCA readers copied me on the letters they sent to the Times, and I told them that I would print the unpublished ones here, along with one of my favorite (of many) works in the DIA’s galleries.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.
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.
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.