Virginia Postrel
Virginia Postrel

When the news broke that if Detroit goes into bankruptcy the city might cover some of its $15 billion debt by selling Detroit Institute of Arts treasures, the reaction was predictable and the language harsh.

The DIA’s director, Graham Beal, called the idea “sickening.” Michigan columnist Eric Baerren denounced it as a sign of “Babbitt Nation, where the value of absolutely everything can be summed up by the number of dollars people are willing to trade for it.” Museum patron A. Alfred Taubman said selling artworks “would be a crime.” Arts blogger Lee Rosenbaum termed it “possible rape.” Political blogger Walter Russell Mead accused Detroit’s corrupt politics of sparking a “modern-day bonfire of the vanities.”

All right-thinking people, in short, agreed that parting with works such as Van Gogh’s self-portrait, Bruegel’s “The Wedding Dance,” Matisse’s “The Window” or Bellini’s “Madonna and Child” would be an abomination. The collection is “not just an asset of Detroit. It’s an asset of the country,” Taubman told the Detroit Free Press, voicing a frequently heard sentiment.

If I lived in Detroit, I’d want to keep these artworks, too. And if I were a museum employee, I’d be particularly demoralized. The DIA has in recent years shown itself a responsible financial steward, and last August won voter approval in three surrounding counties for its first dedicated property-tax funding.

Held Hostage

Parochial interests aside, however, great artworks shouldn’t be held hostage by a relatively unpopular museum in a declining region. The cause of art would be better served if they were sold to institutions in growing cities where museum attendance is more substantial and the visual arts are more appreciated than they’ve ever been in Detroit. Art lovers should stop equating the public good with the status quo.

On the fiscal front, Detroit has a much stronger claim on its museum’s assets than the typical U.S. city government. During the 1920s, when the local economy was booming and the museum was still building its collection, the DIA relied on annual appropriations from the city not just to fund operations, as many museums do, but also to buy art. That marked “a significant departure from the norm for major American art museums,” observed art historian Jeffrey Abt in his detailed 2001 history “A Museum on the Verge.” City dollars paid for the core of the museum’s collection, including the Van Gogh, Bruegel, Matisse and Bellini.

So suggestions that the museum can’t sell major works without risking violations of donor intent are disingenuous. The issue might arise with obscure works or recent acquisitions, but the records for the most valuable pieces are right on the museum’s website. The city bought those works, it owns them, and it should be able to sell them. (Under a 20-year contract signed in 1998, the city owns the building and the collection, but a nonprofit group called the Founders’ Society runs the institute.)

In 1931, the man who built the collection, director William Valentiner, argued for continued city funding by citing how much the works’ value had appreciated. “The Brueghel painting we purchased for $38,000 is valued at more than $150,000,” he said. “If the city were to sell, piece by piece, the objects of art it has purchased, they would realize more than five times the amount paid for them.” Valentiner certainly wasn’t advocating such sales, but his statement demonstrates that they weren’t inconceivable.

Contrary to what casual observers assume, the DIA’s fiscal troubles didn’t start with the decline of the auto industry in the 1980s or white flight to the suburbs in the 1960s. The sad truth is that the institute never enjoyed the voluntary local support that built most U.S. art museums. “Within the first decade of its establishment, the DIA (in comparison with most other American museums) became unusually dependent on government funding,” Abt wrote.

Lurching Along

During the 20th century, the museum’s support group failed to build a significant endowment to subsidize operations. Rather, in an extreme version of a common philanthropic pathology, contributors gave money almost entirely for adding artworks and buildings -- increasing operating costs without providing money to cover them. As a result, the museum spent the century lurching from financial crisis to financial crisis.

A sale to satisfy Detroit’s creditors would certainly be a tragedy for the institution and its local constituents. But if buyers were limited to other museums, possibly even to museums in the U.S., the works wouldn’t disappear from public view. A sale could be a huge boon for art lovers (and tourists) in cities that had the bad luck to grow primarily in the second half of the 20th century -- and that are still growing today. The public trust is no less served by art in Atlanta, Phoenix or Seattle than it is by art in Detroit.

Rather than an offense against art, a properly structured sale would represent a public-spirited update of how the art came to Detroit and other U.S. cities in the first place: as a way of providing liquidity to Europeans in need of cash. “The second world war has opened up an opportunity such as may never come again,” the DIA’s director wrote unabashedly in 1948. “Great private collections which have been held intact for a hundred years or more are being broken up.” Detroit is like an aristocratic estate forced to adjust to changing times. It can’t marry an heiress, but it might find some lucratively appreciative new homes for some of its heirlooms.

Consider the two U.S. metropolitan areas I happen to know best: Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth. Since 1970, each has gained more residents -- 6 million for Los Angeles, 5 million for Dallas-Fort Worth -- than the Detroit metro area has in total population, essentially flat over the period at 4 million. Both have cultures that, in different ways, put a high value on the visual arts. (Dallas even features museum-quality art in its leading shopping mall.) Both include exceptionally well-endowed museums, the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, with collections that are limited less by funding than by what’s available on the market. The Dallas Museum of Art recently received, from a major collector and contributor of contemporary art, a $17 million endowment to acquire and support European art from before 1700.

Low Attendance

In fiscal 2012, which ended June 30, the Detroit museum attracted just fewer than 489,000 visits -- barely 1,000 more than it drew in 1928. With admission now free to residents of the tri-county area, the numbers are up this year, to about 526,000 through April. (These numbers count visits, not individuals; if you come five times, it counts as five visits.) By contrast, last year the Getty Center attracted 1.2 million visitors to a collection whose most impressive asset is the building in which it is housed. (The attendance figure doesn’t include visitors to the separate Getty Villa, which houses Greek and Roman art.)

The museum’s director, Timothy Potts, is charged with adding major works. Last month, the Getty announced the purchase of “Rembrandt Laughing,” a self-portrait of the young painter discovered in 2007, and a Canaletto view of the Grand Canal in Venice. But a young museum can only buy what’s for sale.

Letting the Getty add the Canaletto view of the Piazza San Marco now in Detroit wouldn’t constitute a rape or a bonfire of the vanities. Hanging Van Gogh’s self-portrait alongside his “Irises” at the Getty or Bellini’s Madonna near his “Christ Blessing” at the Kimbell would not betray the public trust. It would enhance it.

(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

To contact the writer of this article: Virginia Postrel at vp@dynamist.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.