Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Speaking of clever ...

James Cuno has an op-ed in The Art Newspaper under the headline "The Immorality of using Detroit's art to bail out bankrupt city," but he doesn't really get around to the immorality argument until the last two paragraphs.

When he finally does, he makes an argument not unlike the one I discussed in the post below.  There, the Detroit Institute is trying to create donor intent going forward.  Cuno tries to read in implied donor intent with respect to the past:

"[The city] accepted gifts of works of art from donors who believed that they were going to serve a lasting, public purpose, and it bought others with funds provided by donors who thought similarly. Some no doubt believed that the works of art with which they were identified would forever remain in the museum’s collection. Others presumed that if they were sold, the resulting funds would be limited, as museum professional guidelines stipulate, to the purchase of other works of art. Others may have imagined that the funds could be used to support conservation and education. In any case, they all must have thought that their gifts were going to be used to enhance public access to works of art."

I see a number of problems with this argument, including the following.

First, it assumes every violation of donor intent is "immoral."  But even if you buy his story about what the donors "must have" thought, not every departure from donor intent is necessarily immoral; that has to be argued for, not assumed.  (For example.)

Second, to the extent donors believed their gifts "were going to serve a lasting, public purpose," well, helping to pay retiree pensions, or to save Detroit from total collapse, are lasting public purposes as well.

Third, I could be wrong about this, but, based on the exhaustive history of the DIA just published by the Detroit Free Press's Mark Styker, I think it's factually incorrect.  According to Stryker, the museum "became a city department" in 1919 and began to "dr[a]w operating funds from the same pool of money that supported parks, police and other services."  "Flush with city cash, the DIA embarked on a buying spree between 1922 and 1930 that landed some its greatest treasures" -- Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Bruegel, Matisse, Bellini, Van Eyck, etc.  If this is right, then, with respect to these works at least, THERE ARE NO 'DONORS' TO SPEAK OF IN THE RELEVANT SENSE.  Cuno's (clever) "implied donor intent" theory never even gets off the ground.