You’ve Gotta Have Art: Hands Off The Detroit Institute of Arts


Great cities are defined by their cultural institutions. Don’t believe me? What is one of the most photographed buildings in the world? Hint: It’s in Sydney, Australia. There isn’t a 400-year history of opera in Australia, yet that one building’s combination of architecture and functionality for the numerous performance theaters inside have helped to define not only a city, but an entire country.

What would Paris be without the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, or it’s bistros and cafes? New York City without the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, or Broadway? Washington D.C. without the Smithsonian? What will become of Detroit if the nearly 130-year-old Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) collection is sold off?

There are two primary ways to rank art museums, the most common (and less subjective) method is the total number of visitors, which only illustrates that institution’s tourist draw. The more meaningful and true method of ranking art museums is by their actual collection, which has nothing to do with the walls they are contained in (although the Diego Rivera frescos do blur that line). The DIA’s collection of American paintings ranks third in the country, and the entire collection gives the DIA a top six national ranking. In 1922, the DIA became the first public collection in America to purchase and display the works of Matisse (The Window) and Van Gogh (Self-Portrait with Straw Hat).

The recent “saber-rattling” from Detroit’s Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) Kevyn Orr threatening to sell off city assets, specifically the DIA collection, to satisfy $15 Billion of accumulated debts needs to stop. At the Mackinac Policy Conference, when questioned about the issue, Gov. Rick Snyder at first said, “All options are on the table.” When asked again a day later he retrenched slightly by saying “In New York, when they went through restructuring they didn’t sell any of their art, but you can never say never.” Instead of more “saber-rattling” the Governor himself should be taking the issue completely off the table by creating some sort of firewall to secure the collection from creditors if Detroit must ultimately file Chapter 9.

If that means legally transferring the city-owned pieces to the DIA’s non-profit operating body, so be it. Furthermore, many of the art donations bequeathed to the DIA over the years were done so with the confidence and assurance that the DIA will act as it’s future curator and not sell the pieces to raise monies for any purpose, let alone to fulfill City debt obligations. The numerous lawsuits that would be filed to prevent the sale of these donated pieces will likely extend far beyond EFM Orr’s reign.

There is no doubt that Detroit and our region are in a transitional crossroads, as the City recovers from political corruption at the highest level and undergoes the “right-sizing” of a municipal government that grew to service a population of nearly 2 million, now only needing to serve just over 700,000 residents. That lack of cutting government size and future benefit liabilities as Detroit’s population declined over that last 50+ years is a large contributor to the massive $15 billion of debt the City faces. The restructuring steps that the EFM will be taking are long overdue, and had they been done a decade or two ago, we very possibly wouldn’t be looking at the same dire situation.

Would the taxpayers of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties also sue as participants in the DIA mileage they approved last November? Those in the region clearly care about our cultural institutions because we subsidize, with additional taxes, not only the DIA but also since 2008  (though a similar proposal), the Detroit Zoo. The voters approved the DIA tax under the auspices of improving and retaining the DIA as it currently exists, not the empty shell of a building that once held cultural relics and the works of masters.

Cultural institutions are the heart and soul of a great city. They help create its identity and affirm to its residents that there is more to life than the gritty hard work Detroit is known for. The DIA is not an asset of the City of Detroit, it is an asset of the region because it belongs to all of us. Detroit has been branded as “America’s Great Comeback City;” but if the DIA collection is sold off, what will those moving or relocating to the region come back to?