Maia C/Flickr

My mother, who was a painter before she was a literature professor, learned to love art while lying on her back watching Diego Rivera paint the murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Today, you can still see those murals, which depict a mythological version of that city, its industry, and its inhabitants. What you might not be able to see much longer are some of the paintings and other works of art that hang in the galleries around that painted courtyard.

Of course that would be a bad thing. Art of all sorts is the anchor that keeps a community rooted in its sense of where and what it is, where it has come from, and where it is going. Especially for a city like Detroit, which is in a position to re-imagine itself, art is crucial to helping the city survive and thrive. It is a treasure house of human creativity, hopes, and fears.

Diego Rivera's mural
Vasenka Photography/Flickr Diego Rivera's mural

The fact that it is another kind of treasure house, one that creditors believe they can liquidate and monetize, is what is at issue here. The city owns much of the museum’s artwork (though not the Rivera), and selling its collection would raise somewhere between $1 and $2 billion, depending on whom you ask. That would in turn help pay either the pensioners who are at risk of losing their income, or the lenders who are in danger of disappointing their shareholders, depending on how the bankruptcy proceedings work out.

Perhaps because it is so difficult to define the non-monetary worth of art, the debate has become more emotional that rational. People will rant and rave about the evil that a sale of even some of the collection would entail. As a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which has become the most thoughtful proponent for keeping the collections there, I oppose any sale. What I am unwilling to argue is that the art is Detroit’s inalienable birthright.

The art we see in our great museums was on the whole not made by its citizens. Nor did the community band together to purchase it with collective funds. A few wealthy individuals brought it from the ends of the earth and either they or their heirs were generous enough to deposit it in a place where we could all enjoy it. As often as not, the money that these tycoons used for the purchases did not even come from the community—most of GM’s, Ford’s, and Chrysler’s cars were sold around the world.

Moreover, the arrival of those treasures was part of a centuries-long movement of art, in which the newly wealthy or powerful French and English, for instance, took the art out of impoverished Italy, Spain, and Belgium, before then selling it on to America’s Gilded and Jazz Age robber barons.

Detroit thus does not deserve this art much more than London deserves the Elgin Marbles or a museum in France deserves great art from Benin—and perhaps even less, because it is not a tourist destination that can say that it makes the work more accessible, as the English have always argued about those marbles. In the flow of capital, it is only natural that China now wants to be the next nexus of art collections.

My argument would be this: If we believe enough in our cities as great and vibrant places to invest in their infrastructure—from their roads to their schools and police services to their art—then the art is an important part of what makes them good places to be part of a conscious community. In the case of Detroit, the money to keep the collections there is coming from a set of foundations whose funds go back to some robber barons, but also from the state. It now turns out that the Chinese might be willing, however, to offer twice as much. If Michigan, Detroit, and its supporters can come up with that money, but also the money to bring back decent education, social welfare, and everything else that made Detroit great, the art should stay. If not, I hope it will make a community in China into a much better place someday.

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.

Photos used via Creative Commons licenses with Flickr users Maia C. and Vasenka Photography.