When the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy this year, the resulting fiscal morass prompted a question that is reverberating through arts circles: What will happen to the Detroit Institute of Arts?
While the institute is run by an independent, nonprofit organization, the city owns the property and much of the art. The Detroit Institute of Arts has said the museum holds its collection in the public trust; that position is endorsed in a formal legal opinion issued by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette that forbids selling the art to settle city debts. The museum has also criticized Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr for hiring Christie’s auction house to appraise part of the collection. Orr has said he doesn’t intend to sell the art and is valuing other city assets as well.
Indiana University has several faculty experts who can provide insight into the topic and the issues surrounding it. Sources may be contacted directly. For further assistance, contact Bethany Nolan with IU Communications, 812-855-6494 or email@example.com.
Objects part of public trust
For many years, the American Alliance of Museums debated and finely hammered out guidelines and suggested policy regarding deaccessioning. Though a highly contentious subject among museum professionals, the one issue on which everyone seemed to agree was that deaccessioning in order to raise capital was both short-sighted and unethical.
Most works that have come into public collections are there because of generous donors who made a decision to forgo the profit that could be gained in the marketplace and instead hand down a legacy to the public at large. But regardless of how an object came into a public collection — bequest, donation from a living donor or purchase — once there it is a part not only of a specific collection but of a public trust.
“To monetize that object at a later point not only displays shortsightedness but it also jeopardizes future gifts. Additionally because of market conditions, any work put on the block will invariably find its way into private hands, thus removing works from public access,” said Frank Lewis, a lecturer in the Arts Administration Program in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington. “It is inevitable that an accountant may only see a number, and often a very large one, in the assets column of a spreadsheet, but what that number cannot account for is the variety of uses to which artworks can be employed and the sense of historical
connectedness and often the community pride that such an object engenders.”
Artworks frequently dazzle museum goers because of their rarity and their concomitant financial value, but the real value of artworks lies in the experience of its physical presence. Artworks are an expression of cultural, social and sometimes personal ideas. Their style, material, technique and subject matters are always unique, if not always beautiful, examples of humanity’s search for meaning and relevance.
“We cannot and do not put a price on the history, both good and bad, of the city of Detroit, and the works and their history should be considered equally priceless,” Lewis said. “A small print in the DIA collection depicts Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup. What better parable for the present times could there be?”
Frank Lewis is a lecturer in the Arts Administration Program in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. Lewis can be reached at 812-855-4944 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Consider social value of collection
The Detroit Institute of Arts is an important public asset, but not just because the City of Detroit owns the collection and the building where it is exhibited. More significantly, the museum plays an important role in shaping civic identity. This function provides value that has an impact far beyond local financial matters.
“I research visual culture and place-based identity in the United States,” said Laura Holzman, assistant professor of art history and museum studies at the Herron School of Art and Design and the IU School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “In my studies of heated public conversations about collecting and exhibiting art in Philadelphia, I have found that objects in local art collections can have strong connections to the ways in which residents and outsiders think about a place. Regardless of where and when they were made, objects collected and displayed in a particular city operate as vessels for individuals’ memories of that place and generate new visions of what the place can become.”
When institutions acquire or deaccession objects, they are not just making collections management decisions in a vacuum; they are also taking actions that have long-term effects on the actuality and reputation of the region in which they are located. As the city of Detroit moves forward with efforts to address its stark financial situation, Holzman said, it must also consider the tremendous social value of its public art collection.
Laura Holzman is assistant professor of art history and museum studies at the Herron School of Art and Design and the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, where she is also appointed as the Public Scholar of Curatorial Practices and Visual Art. Holzman can be reached at 317-278-9415 or email@example.com.
Potential sale based on ‘insidious assumptions’
In the spring of 2013, as the City of Detroit embarked on the convoluted process that led to its bankruptcy, museum professionals expressed concern about the Detroit Institute of Arts. Because Detroit owns the facilities and collections of the DIA, the bankruptcy has serious implications — which as yet remain unclear — for the institution. The American Alliance of Museums’ Code of Ethics declares that “disposal of collections through sale, trade or research activities is solely for the advancement of the museum’s mission” and states that any funds raised from sale of collections may only be used for “acquisition or direct care of collections.”
“Applying funds raised from sale of objects from the DIA’s collection to defray the city’s debts, then, would constitute a serious breach of professional ethics,” said Modupe Labode, assistant professor of history and museum studies at the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI.
This policy has not stopped speculation about the money that could be raised by selling artwork from the DIA’s collection, she said. The contrast between the economically and politically ravaged city and the DIA’s exquisite art has led some commentators to wonder whether Detroit’s residents would be better served by allocating the money the city contributes to the DIA, as well as money potentially raised from selling its collections, to basic services and pensions.
“The trade-off appears commonsensical, but is based on insidious assumptions about the relationship between the public and culture: that the arts are luxuries; that the arts have little to contribute to the lives of those who cannot afford luxuries; and that the arts are not an essential aspect of civic life,” Labode said. “These assumptions are based on a narrow view of citizenship and public good. Over the decades, Detroit (and Michigan) taxpayers have implicitly asserted through their support of the DIA that this museum — and the arts — are an important aspect of civic life. Whether Detroit chooses to endorse or reject that history will have implications for others throughout the country who are also struggling to reconcile the arts, public funding and civic life.”
Modupe Labode is assistant professor of history and museum studies at the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, where she is also appointed the Public Scholar of African American History and Museums. Labode can be reached at 317-274-3829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.