An Opportunity for Renewal

Selling masterpieces from the DIA won't save Detroit from their enormous debt, but maybe some humility might help


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Let me be blunt: Detroit’s broke. That’s what Michigan Governor Rick Snyder said in mid-July of this year. The city of Detroit declared bankruptcy. That makes it the largest city in the US ever to do so. The court system will be fighting out the legal details for many months, maybe years. But the writing is on the wall. Detroit has hit rock bottom—at least in the fiscal sense.


What happens when a major metropolis goes broke? No one really knows. There was that time in the mid-70s when President Gerald Ford refused to give a bail out to New York City. The New York Daily News ran an infamous headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Ford did eventually sign legislation giving federal loans to New York, saving the city from bankruptcy. With Detroit, it seems to be different. Bankruptcy is being allowed to happen. And with bankruptcy comes a liquidation of assets.

This liquidation has raised questions about what will happen to the art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). The questions are not rhetorical. The State of Michigan recently hired appraisers to begin the process of assessing the worth of the collection. And this is no piddling collection. Detroit was once awash in cash, after all. Detroit had already become a wealthy industrial city in the late 19th century. In the decades when the American Car was king, Detroit was at the center of the car-making kingdom. They called it Motor City. Sooner or later, rich people always start buying art. They did it even in ancient Rome. Because Detroit was once rich, DIA has one of the most extensive collections in the country. There are Rembrandts and Dürers, Van Goghs, and Warhols, Bellinis, and Matisses. There are treasures from the ancient empires, riches from the Far East, and a mural commissioned from Diego Rivera.

The collection is valued in the billions. Since Detroit owes somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen billion dollars to its creditors (no one seems to be able to figure out the exact number), it was inevitable that someone was going to start looking at that art and doing the math.

Even some people within the art world have suggested that Detroit’s art ought to be sold. Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic for The New Yorker, wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago entitled, “Should Detroit Sell its Art?” Scheldahl’s answer? “I have two answers,” he wrote. “Here’s the short one: sell. The long one, which follows, ends in the same place, only garlanded with regrets.” Schjeldahl was immediately taken to task. Hrag Vartanian of Hyperallergic, an arts blog, asked, “Would New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl suggest that Greece sell the Parthenon to pay its crippling national debt? How about Italy or Spain or Portugal or Ireland, which have financial problems of their own — should they sell off national treasures, maybe a national forest, or part of their coastline to pay creditors?”

Schjeldahl was thrown on the defensive and quickly penned a retraction, in part as response to Vartanian’s critique. Schjeldahl apologized for saying that Detroit should sell its art and claimed that, on learning more about the bankruptcy, he realized that the sale of Detroit’s art would not be a meaningful solution anyway. More importantly, Schjeldahl took up Vartanian’s point about Greece selling the Parthenon. “The principle of cultural patrimony is indeed germane,” wrote Schjeldahl in his retraction, “and it should be sacred.” That is to say, the art at DIA is a sacred cultural heritage that belongs to the people of Detroit and should have nothing to do with questions of finance and politics.

The only problem with this claim is that it isn’t true. The people of Detroit came into their cultural patrimony the old fashioned way. Basically, they stole it. People from rich countries have always bought, or simply taken, the art of people from poorer countries. The DIA benefitted from the fact that wealthy American industrialists were able to travel the world buying up the cultural patrimony of other people. Perhaps this fact is of no great damage to, for instance, France, since France still owns quite a bit of its own cultural patrimony and since the works of great French artists like Matisse were available on the open market at the time anyway. No one seriously argues that all the paintings of Matisse should be located in France and only in France. There are, however, no paintings by Matisse (to my knowledge) in any of the public museums of Uruguay. The people of Uruguay are, presumably, no less able to appreciate the art of Matisse than the people of Detroit. But the people of Uruguay are not able to appreciate Matisse close-up for the simple reason that Uruguay has never commanded anywhere near the wealth and power commanded by the USA. A simple, you might say obvious, truth. But one that bears remembering.

The question of cultural patrimony gets even more complicated when thinking about other treasures at DIA. DIA happens to own, for instance, a sculpted dragon from the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon. Babylon was located in what is presently Iraq. The treasures of ancient Babylon were looted (let’s be honest) from the Middle East by Western powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It would be utterly absurd to argue that the Ishtar Gate is somehow the sacred cultural patrimony of the people of Detroit more than of the people of Iraq.

Any argument about cultural patrimony should begin, then, not with whether DIA’s art should or should not be sold in order to deal with Detroit’s bankruptcy, but rather, whether this art should have ever been in Detroit in the first place. This argument is not without precedent, even in Detroit. DIA once owned Claude Monet’s painting “The Seine at Asnières.” But the painting had been looted by the Nazis during WWII, winding up in private hands after the war. In 1949, the Detroit Institute returned that painting to its rightful owners.

But why should such cultural munificence apply only to Nazi looting? What about European looting of the treasures of ancient Egypt, or China, or Africa? In fact, there is no good argument as to why the cultural patrimony of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Korea, India, Egypt, or Nigeria should be in Detroit, especially when it got there by means of financial and political domination. The people of Nigeria were never asked how they felt about losing their cultural patrimony.

The fact that the people of Detroit, and elsewhere in America, are thinking about Detroit’s cultural patrimony opens up a unique opportunity. Sometimes being down and out is the best place to be. It is a position of humility. It can be easier to be generous and forgiving when you’ve been knocked on your ass. Maybe the best way for Detroit to help itself is to right some historical wrongs. It may or may not help the city financially, but it could help spiritually. Keep the Matisses and the Warhols and the Rembrandts. But give back the stuff from Syria and Iraq and Iran. Or at least offer, genuinely, to give it back. Maybe the peoples of those nations will want Detroit to keep some of their cultural patrimony. Maybe these treasures can be shared and exchanged. But that exchange should be equal and voluntary. Detroit has the chance to do something we could all feel proud of for generations to come. Cash comes and goes. I’m talking about an act of genuine renewal. • August 9, 2013