The icy chill of an Arctic front has gripped the Motor City. But the savage, bitter cold is not that of a weather front, it is the unfortunate circumstances of a city economy gone badly awry. Last year, Detroit created a page for itself in the annals of American history by becoming the largest municipality to ever declare bankruptcy. For many years, Detroit has seen its population and its wealth escape to the suburbs. From 1950 to 2013, the population of the city declined precipitously, from nearly 2 million to only 700,000. In a similar fashion, so too fled their tax base. Sadly, the city did far too little to adjust its cost of operations accordingly. The economic picture threatens city services, the pensions of municipal retirees, and, most alarmingly, the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Founded in 1885, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is similar in many ways to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. By most measures, the DIA and VMFA are major art museums that serve an eager public. Their collection of more than 65,000objects mirrors the VMFA’s 33,000 works. Attendance for both institutions exceeds a half million visitors annually. And like VMFA, the DIA is a public museum, owned and maintained by the city of Detroit in the same fashion the Virginia Museum is owned and maintained by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Since 1997, under a 20-year operating agreement, the DIA has been operated by a private 501c3 (Detroit Institute of Arts Inc.). Little in the way of operating funds have come from the city but about $45 million came from city bonds for capital improvement.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is an ideal model of how a public museum should work. Founded during the height of the Great Depression, the Virginia Museum was deemed to be an essential educational service to the citizens of the Commonwealth. And for good reason. It has been proven that art education is one of the essential pillars for critical thinking and is, of course, a great stimulus for creativity in general. What started as a state agency largely supported by the General Fund of the Commonwealth, is now the perfect example of how government and the private sector can work together to provide world-class programs and services to our audience. Today, VMFA is the best-supported state art museum in the country. But it is gifts, grants, contributions and the support of the VMFA Foundation that provide more than 70% of our annual operating support and 100% of the funds used to acquire art for the collections. For us it is the perfect marriage, and one that enables all 8.3 million citizens of Virginia, and all our visitors to enjoy one of the top ten largest and best comprehensive art museums in the United States today. However, the key difference between VMFA and the Detroit Institute of Arts is that, for a crucial period of time when Detroit was luxuriating in the wealth of the car industry, city tax dollars rather than private funds were used to acquire works of art. And not just any works of art, but some of the most prized possessions of the museum, including masterpieces by Van Gogh, Brueghel, Rembrandt and Matisse. In the current art market these paintings could fetch tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars. For the creditors these are merely city assets that should be monetized.
Such a “forced” sale would not only destroy the core of this great American museum, but it would betray the entire principal on which art museums were established – to hold works of art in trust and in perpetuity for their community and future generations. The precedent that such a sale could set has been a matter of acute concern to American museums and should such a sale occur it is unlikely any American museum would participate. Indeed many American private collectors have expressed the same reservations, but emerging super-rich private collectors from Russia, China and the Middle East might not have the same scruples. In all probability, these priceless treasures would disappear from public access, lost forever to the private collections of the highest bidders.
The good news is that the intervention of a number of major foundations and the recent pledge of Michigan’s governor, could forestall this necessity and help our sister institution, the DIA, enjoy the fruits of a healthy and prosperous art museum. The DIA, has pledged itself to raise $100 million over 20 years to add to the $380 million from the foundations and the $350 million from the state to create a fund of $820 million to help the City of Detroit pensioners whose pension plan has been shockingly managed and are confronting the loss of as much as 80% of their pensions. This will also prevent the forced sale of any of the museum’s irreplaceable masterpieces.
We can all hope and pray that this plan comes to fruition for the people of Detroit and Michigan. After all, it’s your art (and always should be).
Graham Beal, DIA director and my longtime colleague, has asked that the VMFA family consider a donation to the fund mentioned above, either directly to DIA or the Community Foundation of South East Michigan, marked for the DIA.
Special thanks to the editor of the editorial page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who invited me to write this article.
–Alex Nyerges, Director