Rates of Exchange: the Detroit Institute of Arts as Gift

Stephen Kobasa
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Henri Matisse, ‘Coffee,’ 1916. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Robert H. Tannahill.

“An urban society needs two institutions to deal with non-functional objects: the sanitation department and the museum.”  ~ S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary, Smithsonian Institution (1964-84)

Detroit is currently renowned for its vanishing. Only its debts have any substance. And its museum.

It cannot be entirely a surprise, then, that the holdings of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) have been considered as salable assets, the returns from which could be used to pay off the billions of dollars owed by the local government to an imposing list of creditors. Since the collection belongs to the city, it is a uniquely public institution, unlike many other major museums which function as independent corporations. The irony is that public ownership makes it vulnerable as the consequence of a municipal economic disaster. xxxxxx


Detroit Institute of Arts, exterior

This could simply be read as a form of hostage taking, meant to produce a heightened sense of the crisis without any real intent to carry out a summary execution. But the mere possibility of such an outcome has provoked considerable comment, both academic and outraged.

Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor of art history at Harvard, initiated a petition addressed to Kevyn Duane Orr, Emergency Manager of Detroit, the official who has taken been given responsibility for resolving the city’s economic quandary. With impassioned hyperbole the document declares that the marketing of any of the museum’s collections “would seal the city’s shame” as “an act of draconian cultural iconoclasm without parallel in modern times.“ Having gathered some five thousand signatures in less than a month, it belongs to that category of necessary, if futile, gestures that are among the last visible traces of a social conscience in this country.


Paul Cezanne, ‘The Three Skulls,’ ca. 1900. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Robert H. Tannahill

That characteristic did not so clearly emerge in a recent exchange of letters in the New York Times which framed the issue around the question “How many lives is a Rembrandt worth?” The discussion veered into self-righteous moral rectitude with its concern over destitute retirees denied their pensions, as if that was the only social disaster that might deserve noting.

Hypocrisy is always a near neighbor to such exchanges, especially when none of the correspondents raise what might be thought to be the more crucial forms of the question.


‘Graziella’ by Pierre Auguste Renoir (1898); one of many paintings owned by the city of Detroit

One of these would be: What are lives without Rembrandt worth? The closest that any of the participants come to this issue is an artist who became one because of having seen Rodin’s The Thinker perched outside the doors of the DIA. But this is both sentimental and private. A moral argument about the way the quality of all living is different because museums exist, even for those who never enter them, would need to posit a more defiant and inclusive alternative to the deeply pessimistic view that the only common human experience is economic suffering.

After all, the desperate social needs of Detroit are not unique to it. There is a logic which would suggest that all the art in all the museums of the world might be sold to bring comfort to the poor. This is a traditional charge against the Roman Catholic Church with its fully stocked Vatican Museums. Of course, the fact that the Sistine Chapel has a theoretical value does not mean that anyone is in a position to buy it, although in these days of hedge fund capital perhaps that is no longer the rhetorical impossibility it once was.

Below: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene,
ca.1598. Oil and tempera on canvas. Gift of the Kresge Foundation and Mrs.
Edsel B. Ford.DIA Caravaggio

But this brings the discussion around to another question that was also missing from the Times exchange. One of the writers who contributes to it does consider the madness of auctioning off the Parthenon as a moral gesture, but her only counterproposal to selling the treasures of Detroit is to suggest that a commission be established to determine the counter value of keeping the collection in purely economic terms, balance sheet compared to balance sheet.


Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, ‘Self Portrait in a Cap and Scarf with the Face Dark: Bust,’ 1633. Etching printed in black on laid paper. Gift of Mrs. James E. Scripps

But why accept the assumption that a Rembrandt is worth anything at all, at least in terms that reduce it simply to its value in monetary exchange? Frank Robinson, a former director of museums at Williams College and the Rhode Island School of Design, points out that art values have inflated to the point that a million dollars is a common price for a single object. And museums have helped to establish the precedents for these mutilated values, as they collected objects whose original value was never thought of as transferrable. Now wrenched from their context and purpose, the artworks become investments. There is an alchemy of museums which turns everything merely to gold, leaving the institutions as authenticators of economic value. In the process, museums have become collaborators in their own destruction, since even the wealthiest of them usually find it impossible to acquire works independently in the current market.



In the freeport storage vaults of Switzerland, paintings and sculpture have ceased to become art in any recognizable sense. They vanish from view, existing only as commodities of status and possession. This expanding category of art valuation reinforces the expectations of class privilege, and provides the comforting explanation of elitism, thereby freeing the larger community from taking responsibility for either its art or its artists.

Right:Jean Antoine Houdon, Robert Fulton, ca. 1804. Marble. Gift of Dexter M. Ferry, Jr.

If this state of things cannot be corrected by simply declaring works of art valueless in monetary terms, why not begin by establishing a system of price controls, with a cap at a level of affordability and a limit to the number of annual purchases any single institution is permitted to make. Once an object enters a museum collection, it would legally cease to have any economic value. Nothing can leave save through exchange or gift, but the values of such exchanges would be achieving comprehensiveness and depth in a collection, not a competition for singular masterpieces.


Andy Warhol, ‘Debbie Harry,’ 1980. One of thousands of images donated to museums in U.S. Courtesy of Danziger Projects. Copyright Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

To accompany this there would be a move away from the model of major depositories towards a more decentralized and broad redistribution of art. A precedent here would be the “Fifty Works for Fifty States” donations from the collection of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel whose own model of patronage was personal, engaged, and free of any mercenary interest whatsoever. Similarly, there was the Andy Warhol Foundation transfer of Warhol photographs to a number of college and university museums throughout the country, though the Foundation has not entirely abandoned the market for other transactions. This proposal might have international applications where claims for the repatriation of illegally acquired art objects could be resolved on the basis, not simply of legal right but of cultural obligation to recognize art as an inheritance without national boundaries. This would mean not only the return of looted objects but the gift of legitimately acquired ones.www/artesmagazine.com

Right: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1623/1625. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mr. Leslie H. Green.

It is this notion of art freely transferred that confronts what is truly unsettling about the threat faced by the Detroit Institute of Arts, and that is the idea that the works which might be sold off came to the museum largely as donations. This potential betrayal of gifts strikes particularly deep. Whatever may have motivated these transfers of ownership (and surely some reasons were either nefarious or self-serving) they constituted a public gesture outside the usual boundaries of profit and loss. Permanent as they may seem, museums are always acts of desperation; offerings of fragile gifts. And if a Rembrandt makes life worth living, then each of us should have one, and a museum to give it to us.

By Stephen Vincent Kobasa, Contributing Writer

Editor’s Note:DIA detroit ruins 2 Since this story originally ran earlier this year*, several more attempts have been made to monetize the DIA collection, a strategy designed to stave off creditors and bolster the city’s budget and pension fund. Thus far, the courts have protected the art by ruling against any attempt to purchase the collection—with just a portion worth up to $867M (Christies, April, 2014)—using private and corporate funds, only to then ‘lend’ it back to the museum. The logic here is that public property or works donated in good faith to the museum cannot now move into private hands, even if the ultimate goal of safe-guarding is well-intended. So, at this writing, the DIA collection remains in jeopardy, a high-profile playing card in the hand of a municipality whose multi-billion-dollar financial woes seem to defy resolution.

*This article originally appeared in Art New England, January-February, 2014, Vol. 35, Issue 1


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