|The Detroit Institute of Arts (Photo: Andrew Jameson, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)|
The latest maneuver in the ongoing City of Detroit bankruptcy is the plan put forth by Court-appointed mediator Judge Gerald Rosen under which donors would put up $500 million to "rescue" the Detroit Institute of Arts, whose encyclopedic collection has been threatened by liquidation to satisfy creditors in what is the largest municipal Chapter 9 proceeding in US history. Under the plan, major foundations with a vested interest in culture and the city of Detroit, such as the Ford, Kresge, and John S. and James L. Knight Foundations, would pool funds to essentially ransom the museum from the mandate of Emergency Manager Kevin Orr to monetize the collection by any means necessary, including selling masterworks by Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Picasso, and Van Gogh at auction. The plan also calls for the DIA, currently a department of the City of Detroit government, to be "spun off" and reorganized as an independent nonprofit institution.
The plan is said to satisfy the quandary of "art vs. pensions," which has pitted local patrons of culture against current and future municipal retirees while conveniently leaving the interests of Wall Street bondholders off the table. It also resolves a governance issue I identified some 20 years ago in a New Art Examiner article titled "DIA in Decline" (Feb./Mar. 1992:29-31), written at the time of another fiscal crisis for the museum when state funding was drastically cut after the election of ultra-conservative Republican John Engler as governor of Michigan. In the article, I charted two trajectories for the evolution of the museum's structure, regionalization or privatization. The former would have established regional taxation and oversight, recognizing the museum's place in the public culture of Southeast Michigan and beyond. The latter was said to facilitate, among other things, private fundraising efforts among the patron class who were and are based primarily in the affluent suburbs. I opined that regionalization was the more democratic option but thought that privatization would be the more likely outcome. Should the current plan succeed, the DIA will in effect enjoy the best of both worlds, a regional funding base for operations from the tax revenues of a recently adopted millage while securing control of the museum away from the municipal bureaucracy to which wealthy trustees had ceded jurisdiction after the First World War.
In response to the news of the plan initially floated by Judge Rosen, noted artist, critic, and curator Michael Hall, a longtime Detroit-area resident, issued the following statement:
|Michael Hall (Photo courtesy of the artist)|
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Hall and I agree that the real tragedy here is how the city's commonwealth -- of which the museum is one part and public pensions are another, along with Belle Isle, public transit, the Water and Sewerage Department, etc. -- is being handed over to private interests in service of the avarice of unbridled capitalism and the class war that it has entailed under what David Harvey terms "accumulation by dispossession." This process has been going on in Detroit for years -- the tens of thousands of single-family houses that have been abandoned in the city since the 1970s with the homeowners losing whatever equity they had, being the most visible indicator. Detroit is and has been a microcosm of the machinations of neoliberalism, the economic regime that accumulation by dispossession serves. And as goes Detroit, I fear, so will go the nation.
This post originally appeared on Motown Review of Art.