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October 2013

Vol. 155 / No. 1327

Drama in Detroit

Although in times of financial stringency cuts score into every aspect of daily life, the arts are an especially vulnerable target because they are often perceived as being of no use. They are the decoration of life, sources of pleasure and entertainment lightly attached to the hard surface of daily realities. They are not easy to defend in the face of the imperatives of Education, Health, Welfare, Transport etc, all of which have universal, practical visibility. Governments often only attend to the arts if they can be factored into plans for the regeneration of particular areas or harnessed to broader educational needs. So much is this the case that museums’ and galleries’ education departments have an unprecedentedly high profile in the conduct of their institutions to ensure that taxpayers’ subsidies are seen to be value for money. The idea that adult visitors can enjoy at leisure what a museum has to offer is an increasingly alien concept – unless a graph can demonstrate that such visitors generate income beyond the café and the shop, and that school groups have successful follow-up projects that register well on performance assessments. In such times, it is little wonder that the received function of museums is constantly under debate. As Janet Barnes of the York Museums Trust has succinctly written: ‘No longer can we assume that previously maintained cultural values will continue to be totally paid for by local and central government’.1 

One of the most frequently touted suggestions for the stopgap funding of museums has been the disposal of an object or objects from their permanent collections (although this is not limited, of course, to museums and includes works owned by churches, schools, charitable foundations etc.). We have commented on this in Editorials on, unfortunately, several occasions, in particular the notorious sale of a painting by L.S. Lowry by Bury Council from the Bury Museum and Art Gallery. This was especially divisive because the sum to be raised was not destined for the Gallery itself but was to help make up a shortfall in the Council’s services budget.2 Although disposal has its advocates in Britain, it is not generally popular and there are tough procedures and punitive measures in place to regulate such sales, especially if the museum itself is an Accredited institution, with all the benefits such a rating can bring. Bury lost its accreditation status. 

A very recent and unfortunate example of disposal in Britain is the imminent sale by Croydon Council of part of its Riesco collection of Chinese ceramics. Twenty-four of its most valuable Ming and Qing pieces (estimated by Christie’s at a value of more than £9 million) have been selected for sale by the Council, with advice from Christie’s, a move seriously opposed by the Museums Association, Arts Council England and many local petitioners. In this case opposition has been ineffective. In Southampton, four years ago, the City Art Gallery was able to retain its Rodin and its Munnings, supported by impassioned public protest.

In the United States disposal is part of museum culture. Works are regularly sold off, not necessarily to boost dwindling operational funds but rather to ‘replace’ works with better ones by the same artist or others. This tradition was taken to quite another level this summer when it was announced that the debt-ridden city of Detroit, forced into bankruptcy, was to call in experts from Christie’s, New York, to value portions of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ magnificent holdings. This was not to discover whether funds would be available to buy another, better Bruegel, Rembrandt, Tintoretto or Matisse. It was to fix auction price tags on selected works to assess DIA’s holdings as part of the city’s assets.

The move was initiated by the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, who has said: ‘There has never been, nor is there now, any plan to sell art’. Nevertheless, when members of Christie’s Appraisals are busying themselves in the galleries and the stores (as they are at the time of writing), alarm and consternation are inevitable, even in spite of further reassurances from Michigan’s Attorney General that the Institute’s collections are ‘held in charitable trust and cannot be sold as part of a bankruptcy proceeding’.

The situation in Detroit reflects a long and sometimes turbulent relationship between the Institute (founded in 1885) and the city. Unusually for a major American museum, the DIA received considerable financial support from the city but consequently suffered during periods of Detroit’s economic downturns, especially in the post-War era. State and city support meant that priority was not given, until recently, to building a substantial endowment. Yet the Institute remains an extraordinary success story in terms of a rousing fund-raising campaign in 1989–90; the expansion and redisplay of the museum in 2007; an increase in visitors and in education programmes (though dented by cuts in 2009). A healthy acquisitions policy has been followed through, particularly in the European sculpture and decorative arts department, with funds provided by private supporters, all enhancing great bequests in 1969 and 1988 of nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings. Such acquisitions and gifts are beyond the wolfish reach of the Emergency Manager and Christie’s.

It is risky to suggest any solutions at this volatile moment in a developing situation. On the one side there is the galvanising clamour of ‘hands off’ our museum; on the other, a reaction of almost calm indifference from those in, for example, the buoyant Detroit art world who maintain that the worst will not happen. In this connection it should be mentioned here that in its long and messy decline as a manufacturing powerhouse, Detroit has become a centre for artists and galleries who have availed themselves of cheap real estate and affordable rents. There is, too, an abundance of philanthropic funding. Further support for the Institute came rather unexpectedly from the three Michigan counties on which Detroit is centred – Wayne, Oakland and Macomb – which a year ago approved a property tax to fund the DIA’s operations, to the value of approximately $22 million p.a. (about seventy percent of its budget).3 So supportive have they been that the counties have warned that this revenue will be withdrawn if sales from the collection are indeed made or taxpayers’ money is diverted from the Institute to help pay the city’s creditors. Ethical opprobrium is here backed by financial threat and will count for much in this continuing and unprecedented drama. The Institute should be placed centre stage, spotlit and unmolested in future plans for Detroit.