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Monday, August 5, 2013

The Detroit Institute of Fine Arts

The Detroit Institute of Fine Arts. Funny, they don't look broke.
Normally, when I write about an art museum, and I've written about quite a few (my book, Art Think, features about a dozen of them), I talk about their holdings, the history of the museum, the building itself, expansions, even the gift shops and cafeterias. I seldom write about their financial situation much beyond the price of admission. Seldom is there any need to. Whether a museum or an individual, one does not go in pursuit of the fine arts with a thin wallet...or endowment. I doubt that it would be news to anyone reading this that the city of Detroit today has a thin wallet--an empty one, in fact. That makes dealing with Detroit museum finances not just important, but in this case, critical. There are actually people who have proposed a billion-dollar garage sale of the museum's holdings (and indeed, the museum itself) under the pretext that people (and particularly their unfunded pensions) are more important than art.
Though museum officials once labeled Diego Rivera and his murals as "detestable" in both style and content, his works highlighting the DIA's collection are as much a part
of the "soul" of the city as Motown or the Ford Motor Company.
In the past, money has never been much of a problem for the Detroit Institute of the Arts. Actually, the museum is, today, relatively secure financially, thanks to a ten-year, $23-million per year operating levy, cuts totaling around 25% in their operating budget, and a four-year, $60-million fundraising drive. This, following a major expansion in 2007. But back then, their endowment was some $350-million. Today, as a result of the current economic slowdown, that figure is around $89-million. At the same time, the city, not surprisingly, was forced to cut off all financial support. Despite these difficulties, the museum has obviously been prudent in the face of economic hard times in the Motor City.
Andy, Vincent, Pablo--the faces say it all,
illustration by Jillian Pulford
The problem is, the city of Detroit owns the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts--lock, stock, and barrel vaults. That is to say, while the city is quite bankrupt, it is also in the enviable position of sitting on an art collection that alone is valued at more than a billion dollars (not counting the museum itself). And while the institute may be quite financially viable, at least for the next ten years, its owner is an economic basket case. If such was the situation involving some bankrupt financier, the art collection and the mansion housing it, if they hadn't already be sold by the owner, would be lumped in with his or her available assets and seized by the court. However, this is not, Nathan Detroit we're talking about here (Guys and Dolls).
Detroit's city officials and museum officials alike may be assuming
the pose of the DIA's bronze copy of Rodin's The Thinker (1902) in
trying to decide what to do. The sculptural icon might not bring much
 at auction, there are 27 others in the world just like it.
The situation is unprecedented (thank goodness). The institute's billion-dollars (or more) in fine art sounds like a lot of money, which makes it a tempting target for politicians. Yet, it pales in comparison to Detroit's $17-billion shortfall. Moreover any benefit to be gained by the city of Detroit in liquidating their art treasure is more theoretical than practical. One does not just dump a billion dollars worth of great art (or even a small percentage of it) on the market and expect to get top dollar. There simply aren't that many billionaire art collectors in the world with that kind of ready cash. Even if you were to add into that mix the dozen or so other world-class museums with that kind of dough who may, in fact, be licking their collecting and collective chops, at the prospect of even part of the museums 60,000 works going up for auction, any mass liquidation would not only be morally bankrupt but economically ill-advised as well.
Self-portrait in a Straw Hat, 1887,
Vincent van Gogh, might be the
first great artist to depart Detroit.
The collection of the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts is the sixth largest in the country. It's not the Met, but then again, it's not the Kendall, either. It's about as diverse as they come and broader and much deeper than most. Sure to be among the first to be snapped up by greedy buyers would be the first van Gogh self-portrait to ever find its way into a museum (Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, 1887), Copley's Watson and the Shark (1782), van Ruisdael's The Jewish Cemetery (1657), Rembrandt's The Visitation (1640) as well as major works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Degas, Velasquez, Jan van Eyck, and lesser works by Rodin, Matisse, Picasso, Seurat, Rousseau... An outraged museum supporter likened such a liquidation to the city of Detroit selling its very soul. Even if some of these wealthy patrons were to purchase such art works themselves, then donate them back to the museum, the institute's collection would take a grievous hit. In a worst-case scenario, it could all be gone in a matter of days. Such a collection took the museum nearly 130 years to amass. Fortunately, the court battle to prevent such a desecration would probably take almost that long.

Thought provoking, cutting edge, profound--the institute's contemporary
art collection would probably be safe from the auction block.

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