Acton Commentary

It's Time to Privatize the Detroit Institute of Arts


Diego Rivera - Detroit Industry Murals

One of the more intriguing challenges facing Detroit as it navigates bankruptcy proceedings involves the future of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), a real gem in an often otherwise depressing cultural landscape.

Some have suggested that the city sell off the DIA’s collection, estimated to be worth billions of dollars, in an effort to offset the city’s significant fiscal challenges. Virginia Postrel, a prominent cultural critic, argues that “the cause of art would be better served if they were sold to institutions in growing cities where museum attendance is more substantial and the visual arts are more appreciated than they’ve ever been in Detroit.” Peter Schjeldahl writes at the New Yorker that the city ought to prioritize its more basic obligations to its citizens and its retirees over the aesthetic luxury of city supported art: “Art will survive. The pensioner will not.” (This is an opinion which Schjeldahl has since retracted.)

Many have expressed outrage at such conclusions, and some have taken action, however symbolic, to immunize the DIA from such economic considerations. As art critic Hrag Vartanian writes, “DIA’s art may be worth billions on paper, but that fact is irrelevant to its purpose as a public museum collection.” Michigan’s legislature has considered a bill that would attempt to protect the DIA’s assets from a potential bankruptcy sell-off. Michigan’s Attorney General Bill Schuette rendered an opinion that the city’s ownership of the DIA collection is a “charitable trust” and should be acknowledged as such.

There’s a solution that hasn’t really been carefully considered, however: Privatize the DIA. Make it a permanent charitable trust in actual fact rather than mere legal opinion. While daily operations of the DIA have been run under a separate nonprofit since 1998, the agreement expires in 2018 and meanwhile the city retains ownership of the DIA facilities and collection. Fully privatizing the DIA is a solution recognizes the role that civic institutions, rather than simply government, have as stewards of culture.

Such a move has the virtue of respecting the truth in both sides of the debate over whether Detroit ought to sell the DIA’s collection. As Schjeldahl rightly contends in his original piece, the task of curating public art is not an absolutely central function of a city government, particularly one like Detroit that has extreme difficulty providing even more basic services like police, fire, and tax collection. As the nineteenth-century Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper observed in his considerations of art, “A people can live and grow without art, if necessary.” A life without art remains life, even if it is culturally and spiritually impoverished. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, “grub first,” then art.

But Vartanian and others also correctly note the significant formative role that the arts play in the development of the human person. When faced with the scale and significance of problems like those experienced in Detroit, art can provide a sense of hope and expression with truly transformative effects. Art can open up new vistas of reality, placing the seemingly impossible within our grasp. As Kuyper also observes, “The motive of art comes to us not from what exists, but from the notion that there is something higher, something nobler, something richer, and that what exists corresponds only partially to all of this.”

The DIA represents a haven of beauty and creativity in the midst of great despair and ruin, and the loss of such a treasure really would be deleterious for Detroit. Dr. Ben Carson, a famed neurosurgeon and Detroit native, relates how as a youth he would take the bus and “go downtown to the Detroit Institute of Arts, day after day, week after week, month after month, roam through those galleries until I knew every picture, who painted them, when they were born, when they died, what period was represented.” If Detroit is to find entrepreneurial and creative solutions to its myriad travails, the inspiration of art will play no small part in sparking such innovation.

One way to alleviate the burden’s of the city government while keeping the DIA in Detroit as a vital part of the community would be to rely on the institutions of civil society rather than government. Privatizing the DIA need not mean selling the artifacts to a private collection that would close off public access or move the collection out of Detroit as many have suggested. Rather, a nonprofit foundation could be formed or reformed to acquire the assets from the city and run the museum as a private entity. Part of the charter of such a foundation would be recognition of the public nature of such collections and the resolve to keep the DIA’s vast treasures in and for the people of the city. So the city would essentially sell its ownership stake in the DIA, but to a locally-focused, community-oriented nonprofit rather than to a museum or foundation in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

This foundation should be made up of stakeholders in the community, and could even revisit such issues as employee compensation that are politically unworkable in the current climate. Such a sale would provide a one-time injection of cash to the city while also removing the politics surrounding the city’s ongoing budget expenditures (the DIA’s expenses in 2011 were just over $35 million). The details of such a deal would have to be negotiated and certainly wouldn’t be simple. And while a sale would certainly be for far less than the purported “paper value” of the DIA upwards of $2-3 billion, it could still provide some significant short-term relief for a city wracked by debt.

As Vartanian has noted, the DIA is something of an anomaly: it is “unlike other museums in the United States” in that it “is owned by the city in which it resides.” Vartanian’s disdain for selling the DIA’s assets has as much to do with ideological conflation of “public art” with “public institutions” as it does with concern for the people of Detroit. Detroit has something to learn from other cities in this regard: art can serve the public without being a government-run enterprise.

There’s some precedent for a solution like this, even in the DIA’s own history. The DIA has been the recipient of a great deal of private philanthropic support over the years. The defining centerpiece of the DIA’s collection is arguably Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry cycle of frescoes, which were commissioned by Edsel Ford in 1932. The genesis of the original museum itself at the end of the nineteenth century was the result of the generosity of numerous private benefactors. During the Great Depression, in fact, Edsel and Eleanor Ford personally paid the salaries of DIA employees to keep the museum afloat. The Great Recession calls for a more sustainable solution in which civil society steps up to its stewardship responsibilities.

Making the DIA fully independent of the city government would ensure the vitality of the collection and its place within the community for years to come. Privatizing the DIA is the right thing for the DIA itself, the city government, and most importantly, the people of Detroit.