A Poor Exchange

*This text appears in the forthcoming book, “Ends Meet: Essays on Exchange”, published in collaboration by the 2014 graduating students on the Critical Writing in Art & Design program at the Royal College of Art. 


In September 1931, Detroit’s famed entrepreneur, Henry Ford, wrote a brief article in The New York Times on ‘the future’, in which he spoke of potential changes in society that might take place over the course of the next eighty years. At the time the article was published, the Great Depression was taking its toll on every city in America, and Detroit was no exception. Yet despite the strain, working on Ford’s assembly line constructing the newly designed Model-A was still relatively lucrative, and provided workers with much needed economic stability during this time of great hardship. Ford wrote: ‘I believe with Emerson that “talent sinks with character”, that material increase is definitely checked by moral decrease.’ [1] So, what happens when precisely eighty-two years after his article touting the promise of the future, one of the largest cities in America declares bankruptcy? In July 2013, the world watched as Detroit filed for Chapter 9, [2] with steadily declining industry, population loss and rampant internal corruption at the heart of the city’s woes.


It is hard to fathom how a city, once so powerful and so successful, descended into its current state of misfortune. Unlike any other city in America, Detroit’s art and industry became inextricably linked early on. In July 1919, the city acquired the Detroit Museum of Art, renaming it The Detroit Institute of Arts and making it a city department. The Detroit Museum of Art was founded in 1885 as a private, non-profit organization, which is the model of nearly every other major art institution in America. When the museum became a municipal operation, the City of Detroit gained ownership of a great many works of art within the collection. Only certain works gifted to the museum by its patrons were shielded from city ownership through their wills. Thus, today, the Detroit Institute of Arts, known locally as the DIA, has become tangled up in the midst of bankruptcy negotiations, with city creditors eyeing the possibility of selling part of the museum collection to help pay off its colossal debts.


During that fateful July, the news of Detroit’s bankruptcy rapidly made international headlines, as did the question of the DIA’s involvement. One headline in USA Today stated ‘Art’s value in society big question in Detroit’s bankruptcy’, The Wall Street Journal said ‘Detroit Creditors Push for a Price on City’s Art’, and in the UK, The Guardian reflected, ‘Detroit considers alternative plans to save museum’s artworks from auction’. The bankruptcy court has ruled that city-owned art is a city asset, and as such is available to sell, like all other city assets, in order to satisfy its debts. Understandably, this debate, for residents of southeast Michigan, both city and suburbs, is an emotional one. Those who favor the sale of art view the collection primarily from a monetary perspective; they question the relative importance of art in society versus the basic, practical needs of the city and its residents, such as regular safety patrol, operating street lights, faster emergency response times or paying pensioners their promised retirement income. Those who are aghast at the mere mention of auctioning off works in the collection have an equally hard time understanding why, at the expense of the gallery-going public, the DIA should be held responsible for the misuse of the city’s funding by its morally insolvent leaders.


Many of Detroit’s most valuable works of art were acquired in the city’s more prosperous years when the city was flush with cash. From 1922 until 1930, city funding was spent with little hesitation to grow the museum’s collection. Two very important works in the collection, Van Gogh’s Self Portrait (1887) and Matisse’s The Window (1916) were purchased with city funds in 1922. German-born art historian William Valentiner became director of the DIA in 1924, and was an influential figure in the acquisition of major works of European art for the museum. Most famously, while on a buying trip to London, Valentiner came across Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Wedding Dance (1556) and promptly wired back to Detroit insisting that all available purchase funds at the museum go towards buying the painting. He purchased the work for $36,075, approximately $500,000 in today’s money. The Wedding Dance is now recognized as one of the most valuable paintings hanging in the DIA, worth an estimated $100 million. [3]


Valentiner served as director of the museum until 1945, adding considerable value to the overall holdings of the museum through the works he acquired. As these paintings were purchased with city funds, along with plenty of other celebrated works including Monet’s Gladioli (1876), Van Eyck’s Saint Jerome in his Study (1435) and Rembrandt’s The Visitation (1640), they remain particularly vulnerable in the bankruptcy proceedings. Other works, which were gifted by patrons, purchased with Founders Society funds, or left as a bequest to the museum, are protected from auction and valuation. In particular, the 1970 bequest by Robert H. Tannahill altered the prominence of the DIA. Heir to the distinguished Michigan department store Hudson’s, upon his death Tannahill left 557 works to the museum, bestowing upon them an abundance of priceless art. The essence of his collection consisted primarily of works by nineteenth- and twentieth-century European artists, including painting and sculpture by Renoir, Seurat, Degas, Gauguin, Cézanne, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and Brancusi. Tannahill’s will stated that if any works from his bequest were to be sold, the entire collection would have to be given to another museum so that it remained intact.[4]


Oscar Wilde once said, ‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing’, a statement that could not ring more true in today’s controversial DIA debate. Upon bankruptcy, the State of Michigan appointed an emergency financial manager, who quickly hired international auction house Christie’s to perform a valuation of the city-owned works within the museum’s collection. When people expressed shock at this action, however, the financial manager went on record to say no plans had been or would be made to sell the art, which leaves many wondering why the collection was appraised at all. Of the art owned by the city and thus legally, if not morally, permitted to be sold, most agree the sale of said works could not generate enough money to even make a remote dent in the city’s financial troubles – which is a debt estimated around $18 billion. Just a year prior to the bankruptcy, in August 2012, three counties in the surrounding metro-Detroit area voted in support of a millage which increased property taxes per household in order to help support the DIA and shield it against massive budget cuts. The tax raised $23 million annually for operational costs, and in exchange for their support, residents of these three counties are offered free admission to the galleries, as well as to many of its events and educational outreach programs.. The counties have gone on record to say that if works were to be sold, the property tax benefit would be revoked. This would strip the museum of almost seventy-five per cent of its annual operating budget, likely dismantling the institution and any hope of its survival.


It is argued that the DIA is the last remaining evidence of civility within Detroit’s city limits; therefore, something much larger is at stake than works of art. Post-bankruptcy, the sale would do far more harm than good for the city. Of the DIA, Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post writes, ‘like the best American museums, it is an oasis: from the banality of markets and price tags and the idea that there is nothing in life that can’t be quantified, commodified and sold to the highest bidder.’ [5]


In a recent article on the topic, Mark Stryker, staff writer at the Detroit Free Press, wrote: ‘Certainly one of the questions at the heart of the debate is the very definition of a city: is it merely a civic enterprise that provides fundamental services and a frame of economic livelihood, or is it all of that, plus something more exalted: a locus of culture, creativity, and human aspiration?’[6] Indeed, the value of the DIA and what it provides its residents and surrounding communities cannot be quantified. The Van Goghs, Matisses and Bruegels come with a hefty price tag but, more importantly, they offer a window to another world for Detroit’s children, students and visitors alike. Across the socioeconomic spectrum, this museum and its art are inspirational, educational and virtuous assets to the growth and development of creativity within the civic community.


A question of morality is at the heart of this problem: the morality of those past political leaders whose greed and corruption helped send Detroit into a tailspin; the morality of acquisition; the morality of selling art to pay off vast debts the city owes to its creditors; and the moral duty to keep a world renowned art collection intact for the benefit of future generations. If we revisit Ford’s initial quote in the context of the state of affairs in Detroit today, it seems that we have not progressed in the least. Our morality has failed to grow in tandem with our knowledge and technological advancement, as evidenced in this controversial debate. In spite of that, however, I believe with Ford that ‘after all, the only profit of life is life itself… The newest thing in the world is the human being, and the greatest changes are to be looked for in him.’ [7] Despite the suffering that Detroit and its residents have endured, and will continue to endure, many of its people and proponents continue to exchange effort and moral stewardship on behalf of the renaissance of the city. This, coupled with an almost naïve optimism, makes Detroit a remarkably unique place. The treasures of the Detroit Institute of Arts remain in the creditors’ crosshairs for now, but it is the hope and the belief of many that they will come to understand the true social value rather than the financial value of this institution, and that its art cannot be given a price tag, a valuation, or be exchanged for any other asset.




[1] H. Ford, ‘The Promise of the Future makes the Present Seem Drab’, The New York Times, 13/09/31.

[2] A lesser-known chapter of bankruptcy within the US Federal Courts that is specifically designed for municipalities experiencing financial distress. It allows for the reorganization of debts while being temporarily protected from creditors.

[3] M. Stryker, ‘DIA in Peril: A look at the museum’s long, tangled relationship with Detroit politics and finances’, The Detroit Free Press, 08/09/13.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Philip Kennicott, ‘Detroit Institute of Arts fire sale: The worst idea out of Motor City since the Edsel’, The Washington Post, 04/10/13.

[6] M. Stryker, ‘DIA in Peril’, 2013.

[7] H. Ford, ‘The Promise of the Future Makes the Present Seem Drab’, The New York Times, 13/09/31