Museums Comment USA

Michigan should save Detroit’s collection

As the city authority continues to press for the sale of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection, it is time for state-wide action

Protesters outside the Detroit Institute of Arts make their feelings clear. Photo: Tanya Moutzalias/MLive.com

What was widely expected has now become reality: the city of Detroit has been cleared by a federal judge to go through bankruptcy. This means that the singular collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is more at risk than ever, with city officials viewing it as an “asset” that could be sold to help pay down the city’s staggering debt, estimated at around $18bn.

However, the disclosure of Christie’s appraisal of the value of the DIA collection—around $850m at the high end—was considerably less than the $2bn figure bandied about prior to the appraisal. This may temper emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s appetite for putting this magnificent collection on the auction block. Yet undoubtedly there are many twists in this saga still to come, as city workers past and present—the fate of whose pensions are at the core of the Detroit saga—and other creditors have sued the city of Detroit, asking for another appraisal of the collection’s value.  However, a proposal has surfaced recently that would preserve the collection for all Michigan’s citizens, while still addressing the critical financial challenges facing the city of Detroit. 

To reiterate the highlights of this sad tale, the museum is in this situation due to the novel arrangement it has with the city of Detroit. The city, and not a non-profit entity administered by the museum, owns the collection and the stately building in which it is exhibited. Clearly, the museum’s collection is one of Detroit’s prime assets, though not in the definition of the word invoked recently by Orr, who is considering the monetisation of this unique “asset”. 

The American Alliance of Museums has been emphatic in protesting the potential sale of the DIA collection. We feel that the museum and its celebrated collection are essential elements of any Detroit renaissance, attracting tourists, new businesses and something less tangible but no less important for this beleaguered city: a renewed sense of civic pride. 

The new concept being bandied about is not new at all, but actually the revival of an idea that was first introduced more than a decade ago, when financial support from the state of Michigan enabled the wonders of the DIA to be shared with museums across the state. The state funding enabled the DIA to mount exhibitions for other museums in Michigan, thereby exponentially increasing the opportunities for citizens elsewhere in the state to see its treasures. That support disappeared, and the local museums did not have the financial capacity to keep the programme going—much to the chagrin of these communities.

Admittedly, I am not privy to the intricate details of the financial health of the entire state, but I nevertheless urge Governor Rick Snyder to consider funding such a state-wide programme again, with the quid pro quo being the transfer of the DIA collection to state authority or, perhaps, an independent non-profit funded by a state endowment. 

One might be hard-pressed to find an easier, more affordable solution that would benefit tens of thousands of Governor Snyder’s constituents. As a former highly successful venture capitalist, Snyder understands the idea of wise investments in new ideas. He should invest in the museum, providing immeasurable dividends to his state.  

It is important to stress that the museum can be an economic engine for Detroit’s resurgence. But it can also serve the same invaluable purpose for cities and towns throughout Michigan, attracting tourists into downtown areas and bringing world-class art to schoolchildren across the state. A 2006 study conducted the US Conference of Mayors found that for every $1 a government entity invests in cultural institutions, including museums, $7 are returned to local coffers through tax revenues. 

The DIA could also be instrumental in ensuring the maximum impact of this programme. Its director, Graham Beal, and his staff have already proven themselves among the finest in our field at community engagement. The DIA has a proven track record of bringing people to visit—and support—the museum, as evidenced by the success of its block-by-block campaign to win voter’s approval of a tax to help finance the museum’s general operations in August 2012.

When was the last time any politician succeeded in convincing voters that they should tax themselves? That sort of outreach could be put to use throughout Michigan, resulting in significant new benefits for communities across the state, including direct economic impact, strengthened educational programming and improved quality of life. 

Governor Snyder and Kevyn Orr face monumental decisions that could affect the city and state far into the future. The American Alliance of Museums hopes they will bear in mind the long-term, positive impact that the DIA and its art could have on the city’s recovery and resurgence. There are objects in the renowned collection that date to 2400BC, underscoring the fact that museums of all types think long-term; the state’s leaders should do so as well.

Ford W. Bell is the president of the American Alliance of Museums. For more on Detroit, see our January print edition.

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