Monday, August 12, 2013

Teachout on the Detroit Institute of Arts: some lessons for archival advocacy

When times are tough, it can be really difficult to make the case for supporting cultural heritage institutions.  However, it can and must be done—and Terry Teachout, whose Wall Street Journal column focuses on theater and the arts, has some great suggestions

As most of you know, Detroit, Michigan filed for bankruptcy protection from its creditors a few weeks ago.  The city, which has experienced a decades-long downward spiral of industrial decline, population loss, public corruption, and racial conflict, is having difficulty providing even the most basic services.  Forty percent of its streetlights don't work, two thirds of its ambulances are out of commission, and less than nine percent of the crimes reported to the city's police department are ever solved.  The city's employee pension fund is underfunded by $3.5 billion, and it's all but certain that city retirees—who receive an average of $19,000 per year—will be compelled to accept benefit reductions. 

As battered at the Motor City is, it's not completely defeated:  corporations and professionals are moving back into the city's downtown, and young people are streaming into southwestern Detroit (and meeting with some resistance from longtime residents who fear that gentrification will drive them out of their homes).

Detroit is also home to the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is by any standard a world-class art museum.  In most cities, such institutions are non-profit organizations whose operations would be largely unaffected by a municipal bankruptcy declaration.  However, the Detroit Institute of Arts is a city-owned institution, and the city's emergency financial manager has hired Christie's to appraise the museum's collections and assess their cash value.  Although no one in a position of authority has advocated selling off any works of art—at least at this point in time—the museum and its supporters are deeply worried.

Not surprisingly, the hiring of Christie's has sparked intense debate in Detroit and throughout the nation.  Several commentators have argued that the sale of the museum's collections might bring much-needed billions into the city's coffers and that world-class art belongs in dynamic, growing cities, not places like Detroit.  Others emphasize that it's hard to defend keeping works of art when people who receive modest pensions are likely to take a brutal financial hit and basic services range from ineffectual to non-existent.  Others assert that the Detroit Institute of Arts, which enjoys strong regional support, is one of the city's bright spots.

Unfortunately, most of the people opposed to selling off the collections aren't making a solid case for exempting the Detroit Institute of Arts from the coming slaughter.  Terry Teachout is a notable exception.  Twelve days ago, he advanced two excellent arguments against selling off the collections.  Both of them could, with modest reworking, be repurposed by people seeking to defend public archives against cost-cutting legislatures or other cultural heritage institutions that have fallen upon hard times:
  • Contrary to popular belief, any money derived from the sale of the DIA's art collection would not be used to turn on the streetlights of Detroit. It would go straight into the bottomless pockets of the city's Wall Street bondholders. Why slaughter a world-famous museum for their sake?
  • If you truly believe that Detroit has a postcrisis future, then it's your duty to preserve at least some of the things that help make the city worth living in—and visiting. Would you auction off the National Archives' original copy of the Declaration of Independence to help pay down the national debt?
Teachout makes one more excellent point:  it's all well and good for outsiders to condemn the potential gutting of the Detroit Institute of Arts, but the threat of disaster is so pressing that Detroit's business and political leaders really need to step up to the plate:
. . . Such arguments shouldn't be coming from me. They've got to come from Detroit's leaders—and not the corrupt, swinish pols who recklessly mortgaged its future in the first place, but the serious men and women who have to make the hard choices without which the city has no hope. If a no-sale consensus emerges among Detroit's leadership class, and if the smartest and most articulate members of that class can sell it to the public, then it could become politically difficult for Mr. Orr to dispose of any of the DIA's major pieces. But if they shirk their responsibility to the city's future, then Detroit can kiss [Rembrandt's] "The Visitation" goodbye.
Teachout doesn't say it, but there is a role for less prominent people in this process: Detroit's curators, archivists, librarians, and art lovers need to do whatever they can to capture the attention of the city's leaders and drive home the points that he articulated. Those of us who live outside of the region can stress to anyone who will listen that we have no interest in visiting any city that opts to plunder its cultural heritage institutions and will spend our tourist dollars elsewhere.  In addition, we can keep Teachout's points in mind as we combat other misguided efforts to sell off materials of enduring cultural and economic value in an effort to resolve crises that, in the final analysis, are mere blips on the radar screen of history.

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