Monday, May 27, 2013


The Train is a remarkable John Frankenheimer film made in 1964 based upon a true story recounted in the book, Le front de l'art by Rose Valland. The story takes place during World War II and it centers around works of art pilfered from the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris by German occupation forces who intended to send the works home to the Fatherland. Museum officials seeking to stop the larceny, enlisted the help of the French Resistance who in the end, manage to stop the train containing its precious cargo before it reached the German border, but not without appalling loss of human life. The chilling tracking shot toward the end of the movie shows unharmed crates bearing the labels, "Roualt", "Matisse", "Renoir", "Braque", "Dufy", "Degas", "Lautrec" and "Cezanne", scattered among the corpses of the people who died during the process of keeping the priceless objects in France.

This begs the question, what value can you place upon a work of art? That very question is being raised as we speak, in the Motor City.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is among a handful of this nation's most important art museums. Its collection includes the work of the usual suspects found in major Western institutions of its kind: Old Masters such as Dürer, Velazquez, Rubens and Rembrandt; Impressionists, pre, during and post, Courbet, Monet, Cezanne, and Van Gogh; Expressionists, Beckmann, Kirchner, and Kokochka, you get the idea. The DIA also has in its holdings important works from great artists who are not found everywhere such as Van Eyck and Pieter Brueghel the Elder. While the museum is especially known for its fine collection of American art, its collection is encyclopedic.

In the thirties, Edsel Ford commissioned the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, to create a cycle of frescos inspired by the city, for the museum's central court. Rivera's work, like his Rockefeller Center frescos in New York City was highly controversial at the time it was created because it openly espoused his Marxist ideals. But the capitalist Edsel, son of Henry Ford, was unmoved by the protests and defended Rivera's work titled Detroit Industry. During the anti-communist McCarthy era twenty years later, the museum put up a sign remarkable in its candor that said the following:
Rivera's politics and his publicity seeking are detestable. But let's get the record straight on what he did here. He came from Mexico to Detroit, thought our mass production industries and our technology wonderful and very exciting, painted them as one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. This came after the debunking twenties when our artists and writers found nothing worthwhile in America and worst of all in America was the Middle West. Rivera saw and painted the significance of Detroit as a world city. If we are proud of this city's achievements, we should be proud of these paintings and not lose our heads over what Rivera is doing in Mexico today. 

Today, Rivera'a work at the DIA is one of Detroit's great cultural landmarks.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is a municipally owned museum and given the current state of the city in which it resides, its financial straights should not come as much of a surprise. Recently the museum was forced to impose draconian cuts including gallery closures and layoffs of highly regarded, veteran museum professionals. If you thought things couldn't get any worse for the DIA, now come reports that the emergency manager of Detroit's finances is suggesting that parts of the museum's collection might be sold in order to help pay off the city's massive debt. Here is the story found in the Detroit Free Press.

I can see how to the uninitiated, this might seem like a good idea; selling off a few dozen paintings worth tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars apiece, could go a long way toward settling the city's multi-billion dollar debt. The museum's vaults contain about 60,000 objects, and twenty or thirty would be a mere drop in the bucket. One may ask: what's more important, keeping a city solvent, enabling it to pay essential employees such as police, firefighters, and teachers on time, or a handful of paintings down at the museum?

Now before you say to yourself: "beware, the Philistines are at the door", there are a few things to consider. A few years ago at the museum in which I work, (a comparable institution to the DIA), we faced our own financial crisis, albeit one not anywhere close to the scope of Detroit's. Yet the ax was about to fall on a good number of people who put in many years of faithful service and everyone was on edge to put it mildly. At a museum-wide meeting, someone raised the hypothetical question of selling works of art to help fund the museum's operating budget. For a moment, some considered this a tempting idea. Most of us would have gladly chosen to keep our jobs over a Monet or two.

Selling objects in a collection, known in the museum world as deaccessioning, is not an uncommon practice. Much as a gardener might thin out a garden, museums occasionally sell work to thin out bits and pieces that may be overrepresented in the collection or do not fit in with the mission of the institution. However a museum's bylaws generally stipulate that an object in the collection may only be deaccessioned if the proceeds from such a sale would go toward the accession of an object of equal or greater value to the museum. Proceeds going toward any other purpose is strictly forbidden and is in fact, unethical. As the lion's share of any museum's collection is acquired through donation, either of works themselves or the funds to purchase them, a museum that sells a part of its collection for any purpose other than bolstering the collection, even to a modest degree, violates the covenant forged with its donors. Any museum choosing this path would lose all credibility with future donors and the museum community at large.

Again, one might say while this may be true, desperate times call for desperate actions. In the words of a spokesman for Kevyn Orr, Detroit's emergency administrator, a museum's collection
is an asset of the city to a certain degree. We’ve got a responsibility under the act to rationalize that asset, to make sure we understand what’s it’s worth.
We have to look at everything on the table... as much as it would pain us to do it, and it does, I’m a great lover of art and so is Kevyn, (yet) we’ve got a responsibility to rationalize all the assets of the city and find out what the worth is and what the city holds.
It was added that the city's creditors may even force the issue of selling works of art along with other municipally owned assets. Chicago did just that when they sold former municipal holdings such as the Chicago Skyway and the control of its parking meters in order to raise revenue.

Of course the comparison of selling off a city's cultural treasures to selling roadways and parking meters is ludicrous. Even at the most basic level, it's obvious that the toll roads and parking meters in question are still with us, happily taking our hard earned money. Selling a work of art in a public institution on the other hand, would inevitably mean that the work would no longer be available to the public, as no other public institution could possibly afford to purchase the most valuable objects in the DIA's collection at current market value.

Museum professionals all across the country are responding with understandable concern about the situation in Detroit. Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City notes the outrage of the Detroit art community as well as
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.
Some may view the opinion of a museum director with a certain amount of disdain; they see it as the view of privilege handed down from an ivory tower.

So what is the value of a work of art in a museum?

The director of the DIA, Graham W. J. Beal, has an interesting and unexpected answer:
As far as we’re concerned... as objects held in the public trust, they actually don’t have a value. 
Simply put, a collection of art held by a public institution belongs to all of us. It is an asset to a community only insofar as it constitutes an essential part of the heart and soul of the community. A person can sell parts of his body for money, blood plasma or a kidney perhaps, but eventually he will run out of body parts. You cannot sell your heart or any other vital organ without dying. Your heart has absolutely no value to you as anything other than exactly what and where it is. What the Met is to New York, and the Art Institute is to Chicago, the DIA and its incredible collection is to its city. It is a vital part of what makes Detroit, Detroit. By selling it off bit by bit, the money managers may as well be saying: "let's give up on the idea of Detroit altogether; just pay off its debts, plow it under, and move everybody to some other place that works better."

Getting back to the movie mentioned at the top of this post, after the train carrying the art is forced to stop and the German troops riding aboard it scatter, killing innocent passengers as they depart, the officer who ordered the operation confronts the French Resistance leader who stopped him. The Frenchman Labiche (played by Burt Lancaster), from the beginning was indifferent to the works of art he was saving, his actions were driven purely out of principal. The officer (played by Paul Scofield) says this to Lebiche:
Here's your prize, Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? You feel a sense of excitement at just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. You won by sheer luck. You stopped me without knowing what you were doing or why. You are nothing, Labiche. A lump of flesh. 
The paintings are mine. They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me, or a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did.
There are many folks who like the character Labiche, view art as an elitist enterprise. They feel that art is for a select few and not them, therefore they have no time or need for it. Unfortunately that view is enforced by not a select few in the art community who feel just as the German officer does, that art belongs only to a small, rarified group, namely themselves.

Hopefully the current conversation about the fate of the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts will engage the entire community, not only the few of us directly involved in the arts. After all, people here in Chicago, even those who never set foot in the place feel justly proud of the Art Institute and the city's other cultural institutions, just as the people of Detroit are proud of theirs. Like Labiche, they may not know exactly why, but they understand the importance of those institutions just the same.

Art whether it be painting, sculpture, literature, music, photography, architecture, or whatever, tells the story of our culture, of our past, present and future. It is for and about us. The wishes of the benefactors who saw to it that their collections of art should ultimately belong to us, regardless of their motives, should be honored and respected. Once it belongs to us, like the air we breathe and the water we drink, no one should ever be able to legitimately say that culture belongs to exclusively to them.

In that vein, anyone who cares a lick about art, about the free exchange of ideas and culture, about Detroit, or about any city for that matter, should stand adamant in opposition to this dangerous precedent. The possible selling off of the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts is tantamount to the wholesale selling off of the city of Detroit.

That would be a tragedy.

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