Friday, June 7, 2013

Detroit’s Van Gogh Would Be Better Off In Detroit

I’d like to direct you to read both of those articles (I’ll wait), and then I have a few of my own thoughts to add.

You’re back? Cool.

I was disappointed to see Bloomberg – even in its opinion pages – stooping to the level of Gawker, whose Hamilton Nolan wrote in May that it would be great to “move some great art to some places where more people might actually see it” (emphasis his).

Even Nolan’s not arrogant enough to call for Detroit’s art to be sold specifically to his city (New York). But I was angry about his complete dismissal of Detroit then, and now with another high-profile shark salivating over potential fallout from Detroit’s financial woes, I’m simply livid.

The DIA is certainly not “an unpopular museum in a declining area” (that's Bloomberg's Virginia Postrel’s opinion of the muesum). Kaffer notes that, in terms of percentage of city population, more people visit the DIA than the Getty (Postrel’s pet example in her piece). Even allowing for some error in her math, that’s a compelling counterpoint to Postrel’s argument – LA may have more people, but fewer of them visit their museums.

It’s abundantly clear that these people (Postrel and Nolan and everyone else who’s praying for Detroit to go bankrupt) have rarely actually been to Detroit and certainly aren’t in touch with what’s really happening in the city. Detroit’s been struggling, but the city has plenty going for it. (Incidentally, there’s a fast-growing tech community downtown; several software engineers I know commute from Ann Arbor to Detroit for work, and still others choose to live there.) The museum alone draws me, and so many others, into the city many times a year. Pillaging our cultural institutions is not a solution for the city’s issues. It’s not even part of a solution; it’s completely antithetical to any conceivably successful long-term plan.

And let’s not forget that the DIA has one of the largest and most comprehensive collections in the country, making it an incredibly important cultural asset for the city. As usual, Jack Lessenberry says it best: “selling any paintings would make about as much sense as a poor nineteenth century farmer making a sandwich out of the last seeds he had carefully saved in order to plant his next year’s crop.”

But let’s say you disagree with me so far. Postrel is still on a completely different planet. Her entire argument holds true if (and only if) during the hypothetical firesale “buyers [are] limited to other museums, possibly even to museums in the U.S.” This seems to be a key assumption held by everyone in favor of liquidating part of the DIA’s collection: that the art would end up in other museums. Does anybody actually believe that’s going to happen? Kaffer points out, correctly, that after bankruptcy, lawsuits that force the sale of artwork will force the sale to the highest bidder. The highest bidders will rarely be public institutions – they will be private entities, and treasures now accessible to the public will end up locked away for decades. Certainly even Virginia Postrel and Hamilton Nolan don’t want that.

It’s unclear right now what we can do to support the DIA in this fight, but I can think of one thing we should do. Who’s up for a Damn Arbor DIA visit? Let me knowI’ll organize one.

A bit of background on the issue:


  1. I am very glad you wrote this because I had read the article and just got angry. But I second the trip

  2. I would be interested in a trip to the DIA since i haven't been there in a long time.