Most commentators, apart from Virginia Postrel and the like, seem to think that it would be tragic for the city of Detroit to lose the art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in the city’s bankruptcy proceedings. I agree that liquidating or “monetizing” the collection and shipping the works off to parts unknown like the spare pieces on a totaled car would be tragic.
But at the same time, there’s something about the relationship between the DIA collection and the city government (not to be confused with the people of the city itself) that would seem to warrant the city government’s loss of this asset. When you are a bad steward, even what little you have will be taken from you.
Now one could argue about the details of the DIA’s day-to-day operations, the compensation package for its director, and so on. But apart from these details of stewardship of the DIA itself, the real object lesson in bad stewardship has to do with the city government. Rife with structural corruption, cronyism, and incompetence, the city has been unable to provide the basic services and protection that it is responsible for, despite the best efforts of so many individuals working within the city government. So when the city cannot do the primary things it needs to do, it should lose the privilege of overseeing the secondary things, at the very least until it proves itself to be a responsible steward.
In this sense, the public provision of art by a government is a luxury, one that the city of Detroit quite literally can no longer afford. As Abraham Kuyper put it, “A people can live and grow without art, if necessary.” The sensitivity that the loss of such cultural resources would have for the city, however, is what rightly drives the indignation at the prospect of moving the art out of the city. It is encouraging to see people putting money behind their convictions in this way, like the former Wayne State professor who has donated $5 million to save the DIA.
The latest issue of Comment magazine is on the fruitful idea of patronage, and editor Jamie Smith has
an editorial a blog post addressing the DIA dilemma, in which he argues “‘Detroit’ is more than its finances (or lack thereof) because cities are more than economic entities. Cities are multifaceted organizations of human social life. There is an economic aspect to any city, to be sure; but a city is not only economic.” But to take that a step further, Detroit is also more than its government, and the conflation of the city itself with the city government is precisely, at least in large part, what has led to the precariousness of the DIA’s situation.
Smith refers to the challenge of “double-patronage,” since much of the DIA was originally sponsored by private money: “Our patronage secured the art originally; now our giving is just securing it … again? It’s a fair question.” It is a fair question, indeed, but in my view it is a question that challenges the original wisdom of such patronage that would pay for such a unique art collection and then entrust it to the city government. Rather than double-patronage, the $500 million that Judge Rosen is seeking to privatize the DIA while keeping it local could be more helpfully be viewed as a kind of redemptive payment, saving the art from the debts the city has otherwise incurred while ensuring that the treasured collection will never again be held as a ransom against governmental malfeasance.
It’s time to privatize the DIA and keep the collection in Detroit, and may God bless the efforts of Judge Rosen and others to do just that.