“In the 1970s and the 1930s, when the DIA either shut down or nearly shut down, there is no whiff of anybody suggesting in any committee or board meeting that art should be sold,” says Beal, referring to two previous periods of crisis for the museum. “It just doesn’t come up.”
But now it’s being seriously considered, and as with so many taboos, mere discussion of it makes the unthinkable seem possible. Although a spokeswoman for the DIA says she can’t give any specifics, she acknowledged that representatives of the art auction house Christie’s are now surveying parts of the collection in an effort to determine their value. Christie’s was hired by Kevyn Orr, who was appointed emergency manager of the financially distressed city by the governor of Michigan in March.
Orr, who is now overseeing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, insists that there is no need to worry about the DIA’s collection: “There has never been, nor is there now, any plan to sell art,” he has said in a statement. But DIA officials, and the museum world at large, are not comforted by that reassurance. Why, if there’s no plan to sell the art, is it being appraised? Putting a monetary value on the collection, which could easily be in the billions of dollars, will only make it all that more attractive to the city’s creditors, which include municipal pension funds.
“If I were in England, I’d blame Margaret Thatcher,” says Beal, who was born in Stratford-on-Avonin Britain. “It is knowing the worth of everything and the value of nothing.”
What’s really at stake
Much of what is happening in Detroit is peculiar to Detroit. But Beal is right to see a larger cultural and political dimension to the possible sale of art from the collection. This is about dismantling the public commons: There are things we hold in trust for the common good, places and institutions such as libraries, museums and public parks that are meant to be held, enjoyed and passed on to future generations without regard to their monetary value, immediate cost or other inconveniences presented by their maintenance.
It is about the fraying and ultimate destruction of a social contract built on the robber-baron philanthropy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the progressive movements that championed education and political reform in the last century and the ideals of equal access that emerged in the civil rights struggles since the 1950s. If you believe there is nothing more to the social contract than the inalienable right of all men to thrive or perish in the market, then museums are an obnoxious example of irrational collectivist thinking.