My mother always said that she developed her love of art from lying on her back in the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), watching Diego Rivera paint the murals that depict that city's industrial might, as well as the people who made it possible. For her, Detroit was a city of images and forms at a heroic scale that made her feel America's possibilities. Its ruin saddened and disgusted her.
Now the DIA is under threat. Its neo-classical structure, with its addition designed by Michael Graves, FAIA, might go the way of the other monuments to the wealth gained from mass production by turning into the set for more ruin porn shoots. If that happens, it will be a loss that will be the death knell both for Detroit and for the American Century.
The DIA is in the unusual position for this country. The city, for the most part, owns its collection. Now that the municipal government is bankrupt, it is tempting to sell those objects and images assembled at the height of Detroit's wealth to pay back some of its debts. Christie's is performing the necessary evaluation.
The DIA should not sell its collection, for several practical reasons. First of all, I do not believe the city will make the roughly $1 to $2 billion that is circulating as the possible revenue from a sale. Yes, the DIA has paintings worth tens and maybe, in one or two cases, hundreds of millions of dollars. But once they are done selling those masterpieces, which are also what bring in visitors and thus keep the museum going, the value of the remaining work diminishes rather rapidly. The difficulty of selling it all will further diminish the returns.
Even if the whole collection is sold, the income will not benefit retirees and other citizens. The money will mostly go to banks and underwriters, and it will not do much to solve the city's immense problems. Not only that, but once the collection is gone, the city will lose an employer and a revenue source that also brings in visitors from around the world.
The only way you can justify the sale is if you just throw in the towel and say that Detroit will cease to exist as an American city. This might happen: it could be the first traditionally grown major metropolitan area with thriving suburbs and no core. It could, in other words, become like Los Angeles, a collection of nodes spread throughout a vast territory. It will not, however, be an area with L.A.'s reach and collage-like coherence. Segregated by race and income, disconnected communities will continue to work, but Detroit will just be the name of an airport and a few sports teams. The core could just become nature again, as has already happened to vast tracts of inner city neighborhoods.
If we are willing to live with that, then the collection could disappear along with the DIA. We should not forget that cities such as Detroit (and Cincinnati, where I direct one of the DIA's peers, the Cincinnati Art Museum) raided the corpses of European cities more than a century ago to gain those riches we now protect with such vehemence. If we are willing to say that now it is the turn of Qatar, a city in China, or perhaps one of the 'stans, then so be it.
I, for one, still think that there is value to the notion of the democratic American city like the one in which my mother grew up: one where people come together to learn from art that shows us all where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going; where institutions ground us, preserve values, and are icons for our community; where we come together around values that are not monetary, but profoundly human. I believe in the kind of place that would commission a revolutionary such as Diego Rivera to paint our portrait, and make us believe in what he showed us.
Photos used with permission via a Creative Commons license with Flickr user Quick fix.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.