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COLUMN: Motor City Blues: Art In Detroit

Wiley's Follies

Asst. Arts & Review Editor

Published: Thursday, December 12, 2013

Updated: Sunday, December 15, 2013 15:12

The cloud of Detroit’s $18 billion debt has been cast over by the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA)—the city’s $886 million art collection has entered the line of sight of hungry creditors and city officials alike. With 17.4 percent of the people in the Detroit metro area now living beneath the poverty line, and the city itself now bankrupt and filing for Chapter 9 reorganization, the necessity of the DIA’s extensive collection has been called into question.

The fine arts have become an institution of oppression in Detroit, with the art’s value growing into a force contrary to its curators’ aims. How do we argue for preservation of fine art at the expense of working roads and basic infrastructure—especially when the art itself lends itself to an elite set of tastes? The Great Recession has spilt into the galleries, and while the discussion surrounding Detroit’s art has been going on for years, the announced bankruptcy means the value of these paintings cannot legally be ignored—the world of fine art must confront the human condition.

Detroit is not without options. While the immediately fulfilling financial decision is to auction off the gallery’s contents, several critics have argued this path is actually a fiscally irresponsible move. Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr, who is presiding for the city over the bankruptcy case, has made clear he sees no great remedy in selling the DIA’s collection—having cash on hand will not fix the unprofitability of Detroit’s institutions.

Additionally, selling fine art is a distinctly different task than negotiating on a used car, or even moving a house onto the market. Since art appeals to tastes rather than utility, it’s worth significantly more to the right buyers. Selling a collection as extensive as the DIA’s would need to be a long process if the city plans to recover even a fraction of its value.

Auctioning off the collection also would likely take large parts of the collection away from the public. In a troubled economy, public institutions of art are less likely to hand over large sums of cash to buy an older collection from Detroit’s museum. Wealthy, independent stakeholders are likely to snatch up the artwork, as they will likely sell well below market value considering the city’s desperation.

This potential outcome is particularly troubling, and would represent a devastating shift in the placement of fine art collections: from the great many to a privileged few.

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Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Wedding Dance stands as one of the DIA’s most valuable paintings, and likely one of the first that would be auctioned off if the city is looking to make a lucrative sale. The 1566 painting runs in the school of voyeurism, depicting 125 peasants dancing at a wedding, a type of celebration that drew harsh criticism from authorities at the time. Most European artists of the time ignored the lower class entirely in their work, and what makes The Wedding Dance so valuable is that it challenges notions of a joyless, uniform working class.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the citizenry is driven into mobs, as it hunts down the conspirators responsible for the death of Caesar. A group of citizen mistakenly kills Cinna the poet in this frenzy, mistaking the man for Cinna the conspirator.

This is the case of Detroit—the people have mistaken the artist for the conspirator. Institutions like the DIA, at their very best preserve the human condition, and at their very worst are indifferent to it. But the privatization of public works not only proves fiscally irresponsible in the case of Detroit: It ignores the social significance of the art. Detroit’s collection is not valued at $886 million because it looks good on a mantel. Rather, it speaks to the fact that since the museum’s founding in 1885, private individuals have so valued the ideas behind these painting and sculptures that they were willing to give away their fortunes to keep this art with the people of Detroit.

And if our public institutions should become disinterested in fine art, the value will be vacated from these pieces. To auction away from Detroit works like The Wedding Dance, with the public in mind, is to mistake common interest with the immediate gratification of the dollar.

Some things are more enduring. For this, the peasants dance.


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