Sunday, July 22, 2012

Balancing Priorities in Detroit

An interesting pair of stories out of Detroit this week.

First, an article in the New York Times about the city's massive financial problems, including long-term debt of $12 billion and deficit spending of $150 million a year.  The latest news is that the city is "cutting the pay and toughening work rules for many of its unionized workers," with the goal of saving about $100 million a year.

Against that backdrop, the Detroit Institute of Arts is pushing for a special new property tax to benefit the museum. The museum has a FAQ page about the campaign.  We're told that, without the tax, "there would be a severe reduction of museum services and programs."  Possible scenarios "include opening selected galleries only on weekends, elimination of school tours, public programs and community outreach."

That doesn't sound very good.  So, if the tax fails, perhaps, given how dire the situation is, they would consider possibly selling a work or two to avoid that severe reduction of services and programs?  Nope.  But look at the explanation they give for why they won't consider that.  First, they mention (question 22) that the art is owned by the City (not by the museum).  But, in the immediately adjacent question, they just assert, like it's a law of nature, that the collection "is held in trust for the benefit of the public and works of art may not be sold except to purchase other art to be added to the DIA’s collection."  You see?  They just can't.  It would violate the Held In Trust Law.  Works of art "may not be sold" -- it's prohibited! -- except to purchase other art.  Sorry.  Their hands really are tied.  It's unfortunate, but those are the rules.

They go on to tick off the usual empty talking points: "such a sale would violate the intentions of donors" (would it, if the works sold were purchased by the museum rather than donated?) ... "donor confidence would be shaken" (again: what if the works sold were purchased rather than donated?) ... "and public outcry would be tremendous" (more tremendous than if there were a severe reduction of museum services and programs including the elimination of school tours, public programs and community outreach?).

Finally, they make the blackmail argument: "Selling art also would isolate the DIA from the national and international museum community. Other institutions that have considered selling art have seen public demonstrations and a withdrawal of financial support."  In other words:  we can't sell work because the other museums will isolate us if we do.  So the museums all agree to punish each other if anyone tries to sell ... and then they use the threat of that punishment as an argument against the sale in the first place.

If I were a voter in Michigan considering this proposed tax, I wouldn't think I've been given any reason to believe that the City "can't" sell art to avoid severe reductions in museum services and programs, if it wanted to.