The Agents of the Poorly Kept Secret Society are following this story closely. This is not the first time that the art collection of a municipal government, held in trust by a museum, has been examined as an asset. In Our Fair City the nascent Clyfford Still Museum sold several of its holdings, technically the property of the City and County of Denver, for a whopping $114 million. However, they used that bit of change to set up a foundation to sustain the museum itself. Detroit’s Emergency Manager, Kevin Orr, seems poised to liquidate at least part of the world class collection to pay off debt. We should not be surprised that a former bankruptcy lawyer has come up with a strategy to fill the massive gaps in the city budget by gutting everything and selling it off.
And, we find it curious that the Federal Government is willing to bail out banks and automotive manufacturers, but is silently watches one of the nation’s biggest cities spiral out of control. Never-mind: our Agents do not have the expertise to properly critique politics or economic strategy.
The interesting chatter at Headquarters is about the sale of the art. We will be inundated over the next few weeks with articles and commentary as this plays out. We will hear how the sale of these assets is necessary to make sure Detroit survives. How this is a short-sighted move that will be regretted a generation from now. It certainly sets a troubling precedent for those of us that participate in the public expression of culture. Municipal governments do not collect art so that it may be an asset for future liquidity. We don’t think about tearing up copper pipes from our fresh water system to fill budget gaps for the same reason: that’s not what it is there for. The art and the copper pipes are there to make a city worth living in. One of the issues in Detroit is that people and companies are not clamoring to move there. The crass auction of one of the country’s great cultural destinations doesn’t paint a rosy picture to lure business back to the city.
Our Agents have also been chatting (in hushed voices among the inky shadows of alleyways) about the curious fact that these artworks, and those at the Clyfford Still Museum, are tempting to sell because of the bat-shit crazy private art market, one of the few corners of capitalism that seems to have ignored the Great Recession. Should Detroit sell the artwork there is a portion, no doubt, that will end up in museums. But, most likely the bulk will go to private hands; the pockets are deeper among super-wealthy art collectors. So, much of this art may be lost to the public. There is so much money in selling art… the temptation can be overwhelming.
We will be watching the unsettling, but fascinating events at the Detroit Institute of Art closely. From across the street, through the peepholes cut strategically in a newspaper.