Photograph of the Carnegie Museum of Art featuring the water pool

The Crisis in Detroit

Right now, there are difficult discussions going on in Detroit. The Detroit Institute of Arts is one of a handful of major museums in this country whose collections are owned by the government: in Detroit’s case, the city. (Unlike most of the developed world, where government supports culture, the rule in the United States is that arts are treated as philanthropy and supported largely by individuals, foundations, and businesses.) The DIA’s situation must once have seemed a privileged and secure one, but today Detroit is bankrupt, and its leaders are considering selling the museum’s great collection to pay its creditors. In essence, they are weighing the exigencies of the present against the promise of the future.

Museums are places of learning and social exchange that both reflect and give form to a city’s overall culture. They are the repository of its history and a cornerstone for its future ambitions. They are also symbols of its success. A debate about this issue took place in the New York Times, where one writer equated Detroit to Greece, asking whether we would expect Greece to sell the Acropolis to pay its debts. What would that do to the very meaning of Greece historically and today? Similarly, if you weaken a great museum and a civic anchor like the DIA by selling off its most historically significant works, you not only make it less of a destination, you telegraph that you are giving up on the city. That message, in very real terms, would undermine future efforts to revitalize Detroit.

Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco, located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In this country, the wealthy may provide museums with essential resources, but museum visitors remain broadly middle class, even as these institutions work hard to expand audiences across the demographic spectrum. Wide-ranging support and visitorship is possible because of the breadth and depth of the great collections at the DIA, Carnegie Museum of Art, and many, many other institutions across the country, which speak to a multitude of interests, ideas, and traditions. Museums play an essential role in people’s development. Many grow up in museums, are educated in them, often get married in them, and then, in turn, bring their children to them. Museums are intrinsic to the life of a city and its population.

Exhibitions come and go, but a collection is, in very real ways, the measure of a museum. The DIA has one of the nation’s great collections, ranging from tribal to contemporary art, with particular strengths in European and American art. Perceptive and caring curators and patrons built the collection over many decades, buying and donating works when they were of much less monetary value than they are today. They did this because of the works’ aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional value, and they did it for the people of Detroit—many, I suspect, with a sense of “giving back” to the city that had nurtured them—not for its creditors.

The New York Times published an editorial suggesting that the collection should be sold, which spurred that paper’s subsequent dialogue on the subject. The writer asked the provocative question, “How many lives is a Rembrandt worth?” That is a false equation that feeds the straw man of elitism. There is no promise that the funds generated from such a sale would feed the hungry or fund pensions; rather, it would likely be used to pay off debts. If sold, prices dictate that the DIA’s greatest artworks would go into private hands since most museums couldn’t afford them. That is an enormous loss. Those works are part of the bone, muscle, and life-blood of Detroit and must not be treated as fungible assets. Detroit must find another way.

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.