How Detroit Istitute of Arts Can Help Save Detroit
A Positive Proposal from a Less than Partial Outside Observer
On a recent and my first real vacation to Detroit, I became aware of a proposal to sell the Detroit Art Institute’s collection to help fill Detroit’s budget shortfall.
To preface, at time of arrival, I was:
1. Fascinated by and excited to be in Detroit.
2. Completely unaware that the DIA existed.
This was probably my eighth trip to Detroit, and on this and previous trips I experienced highlights like the Heidelberg project and the Woodbridge neighborhood. I slept in a van downtown, visited crack houses, and neighborhood revitalization projects throughout the city and walked from Midtown to Downtown at 1:00 AM. It is obvious that a revitalization is underway, and things are really beginning to look up for the city. It seems trite how the media touts the new Whole Foods as being edgy - Midtown seems like an obvious site. I have no doubt that it will do well. I say all this to present myself as an informed outside observer of the city.
So when I recently quit my professional job to launch a start up business full time, I had the opportunity to start things in Detroit and to become a part of its inevitable renaissance.
But I launched in Atlanta instead.
Detroit’s budget issues are more frightening than the crime. Starting a new business is uncertain enough without shifting fiscal sands underpinning it. So I opted to build in Atlanta, and potentially follow Dan Gilbert’s footsteps to downtown Detroit once the business side is proven. It is absolutely essential that Detroit’s finances get in check. Building of a city or a business cannot commence with rain clouds still overhead.
The Detroit Institute of Arts contains an estimated one billion dollars + in artworks, making it in one of the most well equipped art museums in the country. Fantastic, but what do Van Gogh paintings have to do with Detroit? Why had I never heard of the DIA if it was such an excellent museum? The answer to both is that the DIA is not matched to the unique character city it sits in. The DIA appears to house a stunning collection of classical works, but Detroit is not a polished neoclassicist city, and is definitely not a normal city. Even during the earlier golden era, it was seen as different - a smart, tough, future-forward city. Not quite a Van Gogh.
Let’s get one thing clear. Detroit is unquestionably an artistic city and the DIA appears to be an amazing bastion in support of this. But the DIA does not need Van Gogh for this to be true - indeed, few people outside of the midwest are likely to even realize such art exists in the Detroit. The sinews of the past hold the DIA and Detroit itself back from reinventing itself. So then, the proposal comes in two prongs to counter expedite this process.
1. Through intelligent phasing, sell or lease a large portion of the DIA art collection, using some 90% of the proceeds to the financial way forward.
2. Before each work in the collection is removed, hold an art contest specific to a Detroit theme with the remaining 10% of proceeds sponsoring the winning commission.
This means some 50+ million dollars is available to spark a fire under Detroit’s art scene, which in turn helps fuel the revival of Detroit itself
- a critical prerequisite for DIA’s mission to be successful. Right now, Detroit needs artists as much as it needs art.
Elements of the Heidelberg Project have appeared in the DIA - this is excellent and exactly what is called for. House a real density of unique art pieces with Detroit’s unique flavor and story, and a completely new art institution is born which is truly notable outside of the immediate Midwest while embodying the spirit of the community that helped build it. Perhaps next the Robocop statue should replace "The Thinker" on the front steps? For the notability of over 800,000 search results at a build cost of under 100K, this is precisely the kind of intelligent asceticism Detroit needs.
Recall also that at one point Berlin housed an art collection which easily rivaled the DIA. A huge portion of this collection was lost during WWII, but today Berlin is still known to have one of the most vibrant art cultures in the world. Many unique factors play into this, but it was the artistic community that transformed it from a gritty declining city into a European Capital of Culture. The DIA should harness its unique vantage to help revitalize the city it depends on. Who knows, it could become America’s Berlin.
DIA should sell or lease artworks that have no specific significance to Detroit.
The majority of proceeds should go to help eliminate debts, the remaining proceeds 10% should be used as commissions or materials for Detroit artists to replace the previously held works.
Best wishes Detroit City, and to quote our motto here in Atlanta - Resurgens!
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