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“Monetizing” the Detroit Institute of Arts

Even the art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) was considered a city asset by the EM and bond insurers in the event of bankruptcy. The collection includes works by Jan van Eyck, Fra Angelico, Bellini, Titian, Bronzino, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Brueghel, Poussin, Cezanne, van Gogh, Frederic Church, Whistler, Degas, Picasso, Matisse, Kirchner, Kandinsky, Rothko, Warhol, Motherwell, the Detroit Industry frescoes by Diego Rivera, and many other works. Initially valued by local experts as worth between $10 billion and $15 billion, Orr said that he considered “monetizing” a half billion worth “reasonable.”78 “Creditors can really force the issue,” said Orr’s spokesman, Bill Nowling. “If you go into court, they can object and say, ‘Hey, I’m taking a huge haircut, and you’ve got a billion dollars’ worth of art sitting over there.’ ”79 Estimated to be the fifth-largest encyclopedic museum in the nation, with a yearly attendance of nearly six hundred thousand visitors, this liquida- tionist view of the city’s—and the region’s—cultural wealth alarmed even the white suburbs and art world officials across the country. DIA director Graham Beal asserted the fundamental principle that the museum’s collection is “held in the public trust”; Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Campbell noted that selling off works of art would shock and outrage “the millions of people who admire the Detroit Institute of Arts and the entire cultural community who rightly believe that art is a permanent, rather than a liquid, community asset”; Sam Sachs, director of the DIA from 1985 to 1997, observed, “If you could sell off Detroit’s hospitals and its universities, would you do that, too ? If you do things like this, you’re basically spelling the end of the city as an

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ongoing entity.

In response, Nowling framed the issue as a choice between paying pensioners and maintaining an art collection: “It’s hard to go to a pensioner on a fixed income and say ‘We’re going to cut 20 percent of your income or 30 percent or whatever the number is, but art is eternal.’ ”81 This argument was taken at face value by Peter Schjeldahl, an art critic whose support for the sale of the DIA’s art elicited a deluge of angry responses, including the question: “Would New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl suggest that Greece sell the Parthenon to pay its crippling national debt?” Two days later, asserting a sounder grasp of the issues, Schjeldahl rescinded his endorsement.82 Even the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the choice is not between pensions and paintings because the city will attempt to cut pensions in any caseT

Yet the “art for pensions” rhetoric was turned into an unusual “grand bargain” to save the art collection and “limit” pension cuts. Money raised by private foundations, the DIA, and the State of Michigan would be directed to the retiree pension fund, whose unfunded liabilities are estimated at $3.5 billion of the city’s $18 billion in debts, while the DIA would be transferred to a charitable trust^4 However, the bond insurers of Syncora Capital Assurance and the Financial Guaranty Insurance Company filed objections even to this deal, asserting that the proposal unfairly favors retirees over banks. As “creditors,” the parasitic bond insurers, whose business it is to take financial risks for financial gain and who are already immensely wealthy, are hardly equivalent to the city’s struggling retirees, who are not in the business of gambling with their pensions, which they earned as part of their labor contract.

The billionaire Koch brothers, through their right-wing organization Americans for Prosperity, also got involved to defend the bond insurers, condemning the grand bargain and announcing plans to contact ninety thousand conservatives around the state to build opposition to it.85 The brothers have given millions of dollars to a conservative movement headed by the Tea Party in the U.S. Congress that ruthlessly cuts food stamps and denies welfare and daycare for millions of people living in poverty, even as they also fund medical philanthropy and the arts. We could see these attacks on the poor as forms of quiet violence. Slavoj Zizek points out in his book Violence that there are two kinds of violence: subjective violence, such as “crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict,” and objective violence, an unseen form ofviolence that is systemic and naturalized. Unseen, objective violence constitutes the zero- degree screen against which we perceive subjective violence. Proponents of what might be called “capitalists with a conscience,” such as Bill Gates and George Soros and the CEOs of Google, IBM, Intel, and eBay, who present themselves as philanthropists first and businessmen second and who support humanitarian projects, help the smooth functioning of this unseen violence. As with the Koch brothers, such charity is no hardship, provides cover for the exploitation that is the source of their wealth, secures power and influence, and supports favored causes without disrupting the underlying logic of a violent system.86

The presumption of Orr, Nowling, Snyder, the bond insurers, and the Koch brothers seems to be that art and cultural patrimony, not to mention promised health care and pensions, are quite expendable but the sanctity of banks’ and insurers’ profits is indeed “eternal.” Derek Donnelly, managing director of the Financial Guaranty Insurance Company, flatly stated, “The DIA or art is not an essential asset and especially not one that is essential to the delivery of services in the city.”87 Even as Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, asserted that under the state’s trust law and other laws, the collection was “held in trust for the public” and that “at no time have the people demanded their most precious cultural resources be sold in order to satisfy financial obligations,” Snyder countered, “It’s a bankruptcy judge that makes that determination.’^

Orr hired the art auction house Christie’s to formally assess the value of the most valuable works in the DIA collection, a contentious process that many saw as itself threatening to the integrity of the museum’s collection. Orr instructed Christie’s to evaluate 5 percent of the collection, which included only works bought with city funds, mostly between 1920 and 1930, when the city was most prosperous. Christie’s returned an estimate of less than $1 billion, ranging between $454 million and $867 million. This estimate infuriated creditors such as Donnelly, who complained that Orr had unfairly excluded what experts believe is billions of dollars of city-owned art donated to the museum or bought with other funds that might include legal restrictions against selling. Eleven works accounted for 75 percent of the estimate, including Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Wedding Dance; Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Straw Hat; Rembrandt’s The Visitation; Henri Matisse’s Le gueridon; Edgar Degas’s Danseuses au foyer; Claude Monet’s Gladioli; Michelangelo’s Scheme for the Decoration of the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; Neri di Bicci’s The Palla Altarpiece: Tobias and Three Archangels; Giovanni Bellini and Workshop’s Madonna and Child; Frans Hals’s Portrait of Hendrik Swalmius; and Michiel Sweerts’s In the Studio8

Creditors who think the assessment was lowballed and who regard the collection as a nonessential city asset that can and should be sold in times of financial distress petitioned the federal judge to establish, in Donnelly’s words, “a committee made up of the city and all major creditor constituencies, using a fair and transparent process that considers a wide range of potential options” for valuing the art. Outrage was widespread, and protestors objecting to the sale of art held a rally and demonstration in front of the museum (figure 8).90 Judge Rhodes denied the creditors’ petition demanding the right to remove

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Demonstration in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts protesting the projected sale of art by the Detroit emergency manager, October 4, 2013. Photo

FIG. 8 Demonstration in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts protesting the projected sale of art by the Detroit emergency manager, October 4, 2013. Photo: James Fassinger.

artworks from the walls of the DIA in order to assess their value (telling them if they wanted to see the paintings to “buy a ticket”). However, he granted permission to evaluate all sixty-six thousand of the DIA’s artworks. The city and the DIA jointly hired Artvest Partners, a New York art investment firm whose personnel could be called as expert witnesses against creditors trying to force a sale of art in court. Artvest valued the collection at $2.76 billion to $4.6 billion, noting the negative impact of releasing a large number of works onto the market at once and the recent declines in the value of auction sales. In response, Donnelly and Financial Guaranty Insurance Company hired Victor Wiener Associates of New York, which prepared another appraisal in just two weeks in order to meet a court deadline, coming in at $8.5 billion, about double that of Artvest. Weiner’s fifty-page assessment relied on appraisals by Artvest and Christie’s as well as its own appraisers, who never actually visited the DIA to inspect works of art.91

The proposal for a selloff came, ironically, after one of the few examples of regional cooperation, when the people of Detroit and surrounding suburbs in 2012 endorsed a tax initiative to fund the DIA, putting it on a secure financial footing for the first time in decades and giving residents of those counties free admission to the museum (the Museum of Modern Art in New York, by contrast, suggests an entry fee of $25). Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties voted in favor of a ten-year commitment to a small increase in property taxes that would guarantee the DIA $23 million per year, roughly two-thirds of its annual operating budget. This tax vote would be automatically rescinded if the

DIA’s art were sold to repay the city’s debts (in addition to violating the city’s own 1919 agreement with the institute).92 The sale of any artworks would also mean that the museum could no longer attract donors; combined with the loss of operating revenue, this would lead to what the museum’s director called a “nonprofit controlled liquidation” of the museum/3

In his initial essay, Schjeldahl suggested that auctioned works would be bought by other American institutions, implying that the country as a whole would still remain in control of its “image wealth.’^4 Given the value of many of these major works, however, the buyers most likely able to afford them, as the DIA’s chief operating officer, Annmarie Erickson, notes, would be private collectors from Russia, China, or the Middle East/5 A selloff of major works would be the equivalent of looting the museum—not unlike the looting that took place in Baghdad during the American invasion of Iraq—and a significant loss of cultural capital. As one of the city’s greatest institutions, moreover, the decline of the DIA would not only not solve the city’s problems in any fundamental way, it would further weaken the city through cultural impoverishment, affecting real estate values and donations to other cultural institutions, which in turn would pave the way for further financial failure down the road. At the same time it would promote the widening separation of art and culture from everyday life, a condition already reflected in the fact that art and music programs have been drastically cut in public schools across the nation/6

The blithe talk about selling or monetizing works of art from the DIA collection not only represents an utter disregard for the effects such an event would have on the city but also combines naked greed with the antiintellectual bias of the corporate business elite and their political spokesmen. On a smaller scale, this sort of narrow-minded indifference is echoed by the unceremonious dumping of a historic book collection in Highland Park. The collection consisted of ten thousand black history volumes, films, videos, and other artifacts, with many of the publications now out of print. Paul Lee, a historian who originally helped put the collection together in the 1960s, was able to rescue one thousand of the books from a Dumpster, while parents and others in the school district erupted in outrage/7 Angry residents held a public protest in which they blocked traffic, wielded megaphones, and displayed picket signs with slogans like “21st Century Hitler Burning Books” and “Dump the EM, Not the Books,” referring to the Highland Park EM, Donald Weatherspoon. While claiming it was “an accident,” Weatherspoon asserted in the same breath that the school district could not afford to preserve the collection. The second-floor library that had housed the collection had been cleared out to make room for district officials’ offices/8

The willingness to plunder Detroit’s cultural assets goes hand in hand with the assaults on unions and on higher education. After Snyder signed legislation establishing a “right-to-work” state, the state legislature expected Michi?gan universities to substantially weaken their faculty unions, and Wayne State University attempted to do so during extended contract negotiations that began in 2012. A show of strength from the union, however, helped keep the Board of Governors from backing down under threats from the legislature to slash the school’s state funding by $27.5 million in retaliation for passing an eight-year contract (instead of the usual three years) in response to the antiunion “right-to-work” law that was about to go into effect. The University of Michigan was threatened with a $47.3 million cut at its three state campuses. It is no accident that as union power has waned in the United States, income inequality has grown, middle-class incomes have stagnated, and blue-collar jobs are less secure, lower-paying, and have fewer benefits. Inequality is greatest in right-to-work states, and unions—where they exist—too often use their resources trying to influence elections instead of confronting employers directly and defending the rights of workers through social struggle." The fact that the legislature backed down on their threats against the universities in this case was a victory for teachers and students, but the blatant disregard for the potential undermining of higher education suggests that legislative priorities lie elsewhere.100 The indifference to higher education and the potential looting of Detroit’s cultural and intellectual assets is not simply a matter of greed, although it is certainly that, but a view of neoliberal values. The willingness to severely undermine arts and educational institutions in the service of profits not only contributes to the financial ruin of the city but to the ruin of democracy and civil society.

 
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