One of the major museums of the USA faces an existential crisis not of its own making. There is talk among Detroit's many creditors of selling off all or part of the museum's collections
to pay off the city's debts. That would effectively mean the end of the museum as an institution. If even one painting is sold off, any prospect of future donations from collectors would end immediately. Funds from donors large and small would dry up. The building would be forced to close.
The City of Detroit officially owns the collection in a unique arrangement going back a century. The museum is run by a non-profit organization, The Detroit Institute of Arts Corporation.
Museums sell or "deaccession" works of art very reluctantly. Usually they do so with the prospect of acquiring another exceptional work of art. In the past, museums would sell off works of art from periods that were out of fashion at the time, a practice which museum staffs now deeply regret (19th century salon paintings and sculptures, Pre-Raphaelite paintings, late 19th century Decadent-Symbolist works, together with Italian 17th century paintings frequently suffered this fate in the 20th century).
I have a little history with the DIA. I used to visit it frequently when I studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1982. I would drive my old 1972 Plymouth Satellite with the Texas plates down Woodward into town on weekends, usually Sundays, to visit the museum. Even in 1982, the museum was having funding problems. On some weekends, whole sections of the museum would be closed down because they couldn't afford the guard staff.
Now Detroit, its elected government sidelined by an administrator appointed by the governor by executive fiat, finds itself between 2 very desperate groups put in the position of competing with each other; the long suffering residents of Detroit and the city's retired employees who must now face a substantial reduction of benefits that they worked their entire lives to get. The museum is caught in the middle of this fiscal crisis 50 years in the making; the cumulative effect of economic decline, white flight, neglect, mismanagement, and corruption.
Selling the museum's collection would be a one-off sale. The whole collection might raise over $2 billion, no small sum, and would fill a large part of the hole in Detroit's finances. On the other hand, once that collection is gone, it is gone forever. The city will never get it back. Any works of art sold from the museum would most likely end up in private collections and never see the light of day again. Public institutions no longer have the financial clout to purchase major works of art in a world where a single Van Gogh painting can sell for upwards of $100 million.
This raises the basic question of what museums, especially art museums, are for. Viewed in one light, American art museums are imperial institutions, conspicuous displays of the loot of the world (art museums line the Mall in Washington DC). They are the creations of the old plutocratic class that ruled the USA in the Gilded Age to glorify the country that they owned, and to somehow redeem and civilize the degraded savages who worked for them (your grand-parents and great grand-parents).
Viewed in another light, art museums are very democratic institutions. Major works of art once viewed exclusively by princes, high priests, and the wealthy are made available to anyone and everyone to look at in person in the original. Everything from Dogon masks once viewed only by initiates to the paintings that adorned the palace walls of Italian princes can now be viewed by everyone from brain surgeons to janitors. The cleaning lady and the tenured Harvard professor can stand together and enjoy the same work of art in the original. Both in some way "own" that work of art.
And now in our increasingly libertarian age, the very idea of public collections available to all is in doubt. Despite the shifting directions of the ideological winds, art remains the manifestation of individual and community thoughts, dreams, aspirations, anxieties, hopes, etc. Works of art are the inner life of humanity incarnated. As such, art is the common property of all.
Here are some highlights of DIA's collection, a little glimpse of what might be lost, and lost forever.
James MacNeil Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket
, 1875; Whistler's most controversial painting. Ruskin accused Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint" in the face of the public. Whistler sued Ruskin for libel in a trial that ruined both men.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peasant Wedding Dance, 1566
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith With Her Maidservant, circa 1623
Rembrandt, The Visitation, 1640
Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1887
Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi Erupting, 1862
Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals painted specially for the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1932 - 1933
Claude Monet, Gladioli, circa 1876
Henri Matisse, The Window (Interior With Forget Me Nots), 1916
Nicholas Poussin, Diana and Endymion, circa 1630