David Hoppe

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:: Fixing Detroit

Don’t sell the art

by David Hoppe

If you live in a city — any city — there are plenty of questions worth asking about the financial crisis afflicting Detroit.

For instance:

How is it that the federal bailout of Detroit’s auto industry could be such a success, yet fail to prevent a financial calamity that threatens the already tenuous well-being of senior citizens and public employees?

While it is clear that Detroit has suffered from gross, even criminal, mismanagement over the years, not to mention such demographic blows as white flight, to what extent has it also been used as a punching bag by rural and suburban interests in Michigan’s state government, exacerbating the city’s problems for the sake of political point-scoring?

And now that the city is on the ropes, does this mean that it will necessarily become a laboratory for the privatization of a whole spectrum of services and resources traditionally considered part of the public trust?

This last question became a subject of national attention after the idea was floated to sell off some or all of the collection held by the Detroit Institute of Arts, the city’s municipally-owned art museum.

Founded in 1883, and designed by Paul Cret, the same architect responsible for Indianapolis’ original Central Library building, the DIA has an irreplaceable collection. In addition to one of the country’s top selections of American art, the museum also includes significant works by such masters as Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Velazquez, Cezanne and Van Gogh, not to mention a large-scale mural by Diego Rivera.

Christies, the international art auction house, appraised the DIA collection in June. Observers guess that were the collection to be offered on the open market, its various pieces would fetch billions of dollars. The market value of the museum’s most important pieces is bound to place them beyond the reach of virtually any other public museum. This means that, in the event of a sell-off, these works will most likely wind up in the hands of private collectors from around the world.

This hasn’t kept some people from trying to force a choice between works of art and hungry pensioners. How, they argue, can the city justify sitting on a mountain of potential cash — in the form of art treasures — when retired city workers could see their retirement funds slashed.

This argument sidesteps the sad fact that the proceeds from such a sale would not begin to address the on-going needs of former and current public employees. Indeed, the only ones likely to benefit from a sell-off would most likely be the banks that have loaned Detroit money.

Fortunately, it appears there are many people in Detroit and elsewhere who are appropriately shocked by the idea of their museum effectively putting itself out of business. They realize this would be a black eye that, in the long run, would do nothing to encourage future investment in the city. It would, instead, only add insult to Detroit’s already injured civic self.

But this situation has also underlined the rhetorical deficit that continues to dog arts advocates when it comes to making their case in the media and with the public at large. While museums and other landmark cultural institutions continue to be part of how any real city projects itself to the larger world, these resources seem to be understood and appreciated by an ever smaller, albeit highly influential, slice of society. This does not make what museums do less important, but it does make their continued well-being more precarious.

Just how precarious became clear last week with the news that while Detroit was contemplating selling off its art treasures, Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, approved a plan to build a new, $650 million stadium for the Detroit Red Wings hockey team — with half that money to be paid with public funds.

That’s right: At the same time Detroit is declaring bankruptcy, the state’s governor is committing millions in public dollars to the billionaire owner of that city’s hockey franchise, Mike Illitch, the founder of Little Caesar’s pizza. “This is part of investing in Detroit’s future,” said Gov. Snyder.

This will be Detroit’s third publicly-funded stadium. The Lions got one, so did the Tigers. Each time, of course, people were told the new stadium would be a boon for the city.

What happens in Detroit will likely set precedents for cities across the country. Detroit is in a crisis, but this doesn’t mean the city is going away. It just raises another question: What kind of city will be left after the people trying to fix it have moved on?