How Best To Spend The Detroit Institute of Arts' 15 Minutes of Fame

What could be more fitting than to use the DIA's collection to save the collection, to help save Detroit and to put politicians on notice that art matters?
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On August 13, 2013, the Detroit Institute of Arts announced that it is willing to sue in order to avoid any attempt by emergency financial manager Kevyn Orr to sell off pieces of its collection. Everyone knows that decades of financial maleficence, corruption, post-industrial economic forces and racial tension have colluded and forced the city into bankruptcy. Everyone also knows that the DIA collection is an important and valuable element of Detroit's remaining cultural capital.

Art critics, museum directors and the art blogosphere have quickly and dramatically elevated the collection in public discourse. The intensity and magnitude of this privileged space in the public conscience is rare for an art institution, even for the venerable titans in Los Angeles and New York -- as well as for their counterparts in Europe.

The DIA and Detroiters should resist the collection sale. And the art world, especially the smaller, community-based arts institutions, needs to vigorously engage in the debate about Detroit's art, and draw lessons from that discussion that are applicable to local art scenes. These two positions grow from a common basis, namely, the exponential growth in media coverage of the DIA collection in the last year. Both domestic and international news sources are publishing pieces on Detroit's art.


The DIA and its collection are now genuine celebrity figures. They're generating an intensely energetic buzz at the intersection of high art and politics. Neither the Institute nor the broader arts community should fumble this opportunity to harness that energy. Here are a few suggested prescriptions for each:

DIA Collection World Tour

Heightened media attention at a global scale is essentially advertising for the DIA collection. Its fame is ascendant, and this ascendency will in all likelihood contribute to an increase in both its financial value and cultural cachet, as well as to Detroit's overall vibrancy and morale. Instead of liquidating this great cultural asset, the DIA and its supporters should advocate for a subset of works in the collection being sent on a five- or 10-year tour of major museums around the world.

The DIA could likely receive a hefty revenue stream while simultaneously putting its collection to work as an active cultural emissary for the city. A thoughtful curator might arrange a speakers' series, special publications, primary school programs, or any number of ancillary projects to help propel such a tour. The long-term value of the collection, both in financial and cultural terms, would probably rise. The DIA might even arrange for some portion of revenues to flow to Detroit's municipal pensioners, the group likeliest to lose most as the city's bankruptcy proceedings unfold. If it decides to turn to legal means to defend its collection, those revenues could also fuel a legal defense fund.

Politics and the Arts Community

The larger international arts community is already intensely focused on Detroit's art scene and the DIA in particular, but mostly in a referendum fashion focusing on the question of whether the Institute's most valuable and historically important art works should be liquidated to help Detroit through its financial apocalypse. This question is crucial, and should be answered with a resounding no.

But it should not be the only one that Detroit's situation generates in our minds. For those of us who manage, support, and find great value in art institutions beyond the borders of Detroit, other important questions to be answered. Perhaps the biggest question Detroit is forcing all of us to ponder is a basic one, and fundamentally political in nature: what is the value of art to a city?

As municipalities, counties, states and the nation move quickly toward midterm elections and brace for the sure-to-come-early-phase-shift to 2016 presidential politics, we should not pass up the chance to get our politicians and would-be politicians on record regarding their stances on what value they place on art.

The small Boston art gallery for which I've been the board president for two years has a tradition of inviting political candidates to visit and publicly discuss their views on art and its importance with gallery visitors and one another. How has art shaped your life? What is your favorite museum? Are you a member of any museums? Who is your favorite artist? Which artist, work of art, or period of art seems most salient to you in this political moment? What should happen to the DIA collection? How would you support art in our community?

These are just a few of the questions every political figure should be strongly encouraged to answer as the DIA's fame, at once cultural and political, shines brightly near the center of the debate over Detroit's fate. To squander what remains of those 15 minutes would pile tragedy atop tragedy.

What could be more fitting than to use the DIA's collection to save the collection, to help save Detroit and to put politicians on notice that art matters?

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