Would New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl suggest that Greece sell the Parthenon to pay its crippling national debt? How about Italy or Spain or Portugal or Ireland, which have financial problems of their own — should they sell off national treasures, maybe a national forest, or part of their coastline to pay creditors? The stodgy critic known for his purple prose seems to have, obliviously or not, penned a poisonous exhibit A for justifying the shameless “asset stripping” of a museum collection held in trust for the public.

In the face of Detroit’s recent bankruptcy as a result of what appears to be a $20 billion shortfall, Schjeldahl is suggesting that the city “sell” the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), which is valued at ~$2 billion. It is a frighteningly dumb suggestion, by a man who doesn’t seem to understand the scale, the circumstances, the history, or the reality of what that would even mean — or what a bankruptcy really is.

DIA, which unlike other museums in the United States is owned by the city in which it resides, was recently victorious in its attempt to raise money through a homeowners tax. Americans are often known to despise taxes, but in Metro Detroit the election proved that they like art more. Voters in three Detroit-area counties passed the ballot measure that will raise what is estimated at $23 million each year for DIA. This is not a city in decline, but a city facing extreme challenges and reorienting for its future. That vote proved that Detroit has the power to innovate, paving the way for other cities to consider similar measures. The people of the Detroit Metro area agreed that the museum was important.

Part of the problem with Detroit’s current dilemma is that elected officials are not in control of the decision-making process. A state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, who’s also conveniently a bankruptcy lawyer, is calling all the shots.

Schjeldahl’s proposed argument, which is very thin, is buying into the anti-museum talking points by people like Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who was one of the first people to call the city’s art collection an “asset,” and also the man who appointed Orr. It’s worth noting that Schjeldahl’s post on the New Yorker website is without any real facts that demonstrate the dangers Detroit is facing, and it is mostly filled with vague notions of culture and concern for retirees:

The clincher for me was voiced by a spokesman for the state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn D. Orr. Caplan-Bricker commendably quotes it, from the Times: “It’s hard to go to a pensioner on a fixed income and say, ‘We’re going to cut 20 percent of your income or 30 percent or whatever the number is, but art is eternal.’ ” To expatiate: Vita brevis, ars longa. Art will survive. The pensioner will not. I do not view the impending decision as a close call.

This is simply a false characterization of the scenario. Selling a collection the size and quality of DIA’s is logistically near-impossible and financially unstrategic. As one art advisor told Bloomberg, “They can’t put 100 masterpieces on the market at the same time … You will depress the market.” How a $2 billion art collection — and this is a hypothetical figure not factoring in fees, commissions, etc. — will make much of a dent in the city’s massive problems is beyond me. Gutting the city’s jewels, which include the DIA, is not a long-term solution but a short-term fix. What Schjeldahl doesn’t even mention, and I fear he doesn’t know, is that many of the valuable works cannot even be sold because they are under legal agreements by donors.

Even an out of touch art critic should know that bankruptcies are complicated. And there is never a one to one correspondence between the assets recovered and the most disenfranchised creditors affected by a bankruptcy in the first place. Peter Schjeldahl has you believe that Cézannes will be directly saving helpless pensioners from starvation, but that view is naive to the point of comedy even before you consider the full implications of his argument.

It’s not surprising that when the going gets tough the first impulse is to think of art as an asset, since it is an idea that has been peddled by investment people and money managers for years. The DIA sale, if it ever goes through, and I personally don’t think it will, will be the triumph of that brand of financial thinking. Beyond the fixation on art, there are other potential sources of income that should be considered by Detroit before it goes after the public’s art, and if you’re interested in one Detroiter’s opinion, I’d read the suggestions of one astute Detroit blogger, Toby Barlow. He writes:

As well-intentioned as he no doubt is, the emergency financial manager [of Detroit] is probably not seeking any truly creative solutions. He will be forced to speak in the language of the bond traders, who speak in the language of the bankers, who sit in their offices surrounded by all the works of art their profits have paid for, wondering how it was Detroit got itself into this mess in the first place.

And here is Peter Schjeldahl, who fits perfectly into the courtier class that many art critics have found themselves in, justifying the cultural habits of the super wealthy and powerful, who don’t care about public institutions, and certainly not public art — they have their own art collections, of course. The fact that Schjeldahl doesn’t even attempt to scratch the surface of a much larger issue with real research is shocking. His uninformed article gives them cover and is complicit in justifying their desire to sell.

When Schjeldahl wrote about the disappearance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s metal buttons, he opined with more sentimentality than he could muster for the DIA: “What we call culture is a congeries that includes small things and routine events, which we don’t notice until they alter or perish.” What we are talking about here is obviously more important than something as frivolous as a button: this is one of the country’s top ten museums and a major component of the cultural patrimony of the United States and a forging element of the identity of the citizens of Detroit. The city’s history is at the core of the DIA, and its cultural riches include such unique treasures as the famed courtyard by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Without the museum, the city will survive but only as a shell of itself, and without a sense of history and community that institutions are meant to safeguard for future generations.

As a steward of one the country’s leading cultural publications, it is the very idea of art and cultural heritage held in trust for the public that Schjeldahl has violated with his uninformed post. When a major art critic doesn’t have the faith in the value (beyond dollar signs) of his field, then you have to wonder about the value of his opinions in the first place. DIA’s art may be worth billions on paper, but that fact is irrelevant to its purpose as a public museum collection.

Recently, many people have been talking about the influx of artists and creatives into Detroit, who have looked beyond the ruin porn to see something exciting. The DIA could be one of the engines that help power that creative shift in the city, but not if someone siphons out the gas.

Peter Schjeldahl should be fired.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

55 replies on “New Yorker Art Critic Justifies Looting of Detroit Museum”

  1. HV: I (as you obviously know) am the Art Advisor whom you quote above as saying “…They can’t put 100 masterpieces on the market at the same time … You will depress the market…”

    As to Schjeldahl, I don’t think he should be fired for having an opinion I disagree with. He’s entitled. But I’m from Detroit, and think I have a better handle on the matter, both from market and personal perspectives. For the record, here is my response to Schjeldahl on the New Yorker page where the article you cite appeared –


Peter: You cite declining levels of support for art in the Detroit area, and further suggest that if the Detroit Institute of the Arts’ masterpieces were sold to public collections like the Getty or private collections, people would appreciate them regardless, and that the pensioners concerns demand precedence.

    That’s a position only a non-art-lover could love. Taken to its logical extension, this opinion would concentrate art in a few wealthy, highly-populated enclaves, and leave the rest of the country art-less, jobless and homeless. It would ratify the view that art should only be purview of the elite, and give a whole new spin to the concept of Haves and Have-Nots—as in, “We have the art, and they don’t!”


While art can be a commodity, which is why some works of art sell at auction for astronomical sums, the purpose of a museum is to stand as a bulwark against the commodification of art. Most museums are non-profits and all take seriously their charge to act in the public trust. Museums acquire art not for its financial value—museums are not speculators—but for its aesthetic and cultural importance.

    Nor is art a popularity contest, with its consequence measured at the box office, as you attempt to argue against Caplan-Bricker. It would be ridiculous to get rid of art just because there aren’t lines of fans waiting to get in, just as it would be unthinkable for a library to throw away a rare volume just because no one has checked it out in the past year. Museums, like libraries, hold our collective culture. Their presence alone represents value and meaning.

    What would be the economic consequence of a massive sell-off of Detroit’s art? The further decline of a city on the edge, at the cost of the equivalent of placing a very small band-aid over a massive gaping chest wound.

    Most museums exhibit only a fraction of their collections. The rest, as much as 90%, is stored in archives and warehouses, far away from the public eye. What if America’s most successful museums sent the best of their non-exhibited collections to struggling museums in distressed cities—like Detroit? Previously unseen works would be seen, and perhaps struggling museums would see an uptick in attendance.

    Even more importantly, the presence of more art would help revitalize the community. Art—in museums and galleries, on public walls and private studios—makes neighborhoods more welcoming and cities more vital. Art brings foot traffic and businesses; restaurants open and café tables spring up on the sidewalks. Soon people begin to regard these urban areas as more attractive; industrial buildings get converted to living spaces and new families move in. The cycle of civic renewal begins again and, with it, a stronger economy.

    – Todd Levin

    1. Thank you for chiming in, Todd. I think the bigger danger is that he provides cover for those who want to sell. An uninformed opinion can be a very dangerous thing, particularly when it is given such a powerful megaphone.

      1. Hrag: Well, you do make a good point.

        An uninformed (or in this case a weakly formed and poorly argued) point can be dangerous. I don’t know about firing him, but I vote for at least a firm spanking followed by fifteen minutes in the ‘time-out’ corner….

      2. Hrag, do you really think the financial types who want to sell off the DIA collection care about whatever cover Peter Schjeldahl or any other critic might provide?

        They might care about the New York Times or Wall Street Journal editorial boards.

  2. I don’t know about this idea that Schjeldahl “fits perfectly into the courtier class that many art critics have found themselves in, justifying the cultural habits of the super wealthy and powerful, who don’t care about public institutions, and certainly not public art — they have their own art collections, of course.”

    To me his position is fairly consistent with the importance he places on art, outlined in Seven Days in the Art World. He doesn’t think it’s that important relative to, say, the economy. In this case, he didn’t make the best case for his opinion but I don’t think he needs to be fired for it.

    1. Thanks for contributing to the conversation, Paddy. But I feel very strong about this. He had forsaken the stewardship of his role IMO. I think he’s dangerously out of touch. I think what people say and what they do are different thing, I prefer to trust the latter.

      1. I agree with Paddy- it’s one thing to disagree with him (which I do)- but his opinion in grounded in an admirable human concern for the poor and elderly. You should give him some credit for that!

        1. No, I don’t. If he was concerned about the poor and elderly, he would’ve spent some time looking into the real issue, perhaps written about the issue consistently (or something?), and not offer some vague opinion that pits an art museum against them.

  3. Your analysis is spot on, Mr. Vartanian.

    For Schjeldahl to make these kinds of pronouncements proves that he is writing to provide cover for unelected forces like Orr and the banks he represents to continue looting the city. It is disingenuous at best for Schjeldahl to posit that the choice in Detroit is between the lives of pensioners and art. It’s a disgusting distortion of the facts under the guise of concern for the people in the city-people who voted to support and sustain their premier cultural institution. City services have been in decline in Detroit for over a decade. Where was Schjeldahl’s concern for pensioners then? Now, when the Governor has subverted the popular will, the sale of the collection has to be discussed because “all options are on the table”? It strains credulity that Schjeldahl thinks that any citizen’s pension will be saved with a sale of artworks.

    This may just be his opinion, but it is a deceptive an ill informed one. In supporting the view of Orr, Mayor Bing, and others, Schjeldahl reifies the museum as collateral, with its only value as financial. He frames the situation in Detroit as a choice between art and human life. He advocates closing a major American museum to satisfy debt under the guise of helping the citizens of the city. And his critical position and title give a weight to his pronouncements.

    I agree. The NEW YORKER needs a new art critic.

  4. in the history of my reading of hyperallergic, i don’t recall there being a habit of calling for someone’s head no matter what the reported misdoing, and there have been a lot.

    unfortunately it appears a bit self serving for one, less well-known, art writer to call for the resignation of another, more established, art writer, more-so solely on the basis of differing opinions.

    1. So, you’re essentially saying “know your place.” Nothing you said has to do with the points I’ve offered or discussed. I guess you believe in the infallibility of those more senior than you. You probably feel right at home in the class system.

      1. i guess my questioning the motivation for such uncharacteristic and overboard histrionics (both in the piece and comment replies) seems to have offended you, judging by the circumstantial ad-hominem written above. i apologize.

        1. Jason, I agree with you. There seems to be an increase of disdainful criticism of well-known art critics on this site as of late which is so biting that the intended message by the authors is obscured by the vitriol. (In writing this, I know I will be skewered as well.) I enjoyed this blogazine because it was informative and fun. But, some of the recent articles and their commentary (as well as on the fb page) have taken a rather nasty turn. You have a point in your article, Hrag, but it’s over-powered by the “he should be fired”.

          1. You’re right, we like to speak truth to power. Hyperallergic is not a place for status quo. I think you are underestimating how irresponsible Schjeldahl’s opinion is in this matter. On that we can disagree, but I think my reaction is justified. We are not talking about something that is unimportant to the life of a major city.

          2. If there is increasing disdain for well-known art critics on here, I think it’s just because they’ve been increasingly dismaying and disappointing. If there are any art critics who still have any wider cultural influence, it’s the mainstream ones. We need to hold them accountable when they say absurd or stupid or offensive things.

            As for Schjeldahl, I’m not sure if I agree with Hrag that he should be fired, but the point is that he essentially failed to be a thinking and informed critic in writing the Detroit blog post. He accepted the words of Orr’s spokesman at face value without doing any further research. What is the job of the cultural critic and observer if not to see through the glib words of politicians, think for himself, and offer an informed opinion? Schjeldahl utterly failed to do that. I think that’s why Hrag is suggesting he should be fired—because he failed at his job.

          3. It becomes problematic when most of the reactions to art critics writings are dialed to “hair-on-fire” outrage. Then, when there is a legitimate concern, like this one in Hrag’s article, it’s drowned out in the continual din of persistent outrage…kinda like Fox News. Constant uproar is counter-productive and exhausting. Many recent ‘art critic’ articles read to be written by one outraged voice. That may be intentional. But, I miss the balance of opposing views without an attack mentality.
            Like I wrote before, Hrag has a point. But for me, calling for this man’s firing undermined his argument.
            (As an aside, I think using terms like “stupid” and “dumb” when referring to art critics and others is unnecessary, no?)

  5. Although I have not yet read Schjeldahl’s article, it saddens me deeply that he has taken this position. I look to him as one of the few critics with integrity, rather than being from the Courtier class , l know that he started as a poet in the late 60’s from the St Marks Poetry Project -Ted Berrigan et al. This was truly a great generation of art, poetry, criticism from Frank O’Hara on. If anything rather than being from the Courtier class , people from this group felt compelled to pursue art , knowing that they would make next to no money but that any other way of life without being devoted to art was unimaginable. Your own John Yau comes from the St Marks School of art, poetry and criticism. I really hope that Schjeldahl’s article is a lapse as it betrays everything I thought he stood for and admired him for

    P.S He certainly may know something about art but he is definitely not an economist

  6. While I’m similarly dismayed at Schjeldahl’s take on this situation (and the vagaries and out-of-touch aspects of his piece that you very rightly mention), I’m with the other commenters here who feel it’s a disproportionate leap from disagreeing with him to calling for his ouster. Especially over one opinion. Not really a constructive way to keep the conversation going around this hot-button issue.

  7. I can’t believe you want to fire the guy for expressing an opinion. Are you an idiot, or just a born bureaucrat?

      1. So you would consider it, if it were legal? And Hrag, you are the one “freaking out,” though w your degree of insight I’m not surprised that you are confused

      1. Are you that stupid, or do you just have a tin ear? It’s you who seems to lack understanding of the notion of “free speech”

      2. Internet rule #1 -don’t feed the trolls. Also, by engaging this comment, and posting about it on FB to gain more page views, you’re giving Jason more credence on his “did it for the hype” call out above.

        1. You are suggesting I can’t use my personal feed (which is how I interact with people I know) on FB? Huh? When someone is attacked, they share their feelings with their friends, perhaps you deal with things different (which I can respect) but that’s an odd thing to bring up.

  8. I disagree with Schjeldahl’s somewhat misplaced perception of the cultural value of the collection, but your reaction is unnecessary.

  9. What’s up w/ all this animosity!!?? No one should be talking about deportation… H.V. I do think that wishing Mr. Schjeldahl’s termination is too much, but I agree that his is a dangerous position to take. My girlfriend and I were talking about this last night. S. is right to ask how you are supposed to tell someone that a painting is more valuable than their pension (which they worked for and have earned!). But it’s more of a fact that the collection will barely put a dent in the 20bn. Detroit will do better selling corporate bonds and fostering industry- even working to clean up the environmental messes that Detroit’s industry has created over the decades will give a huge boost to the economy (GE’s super-fund site on the Hudson is a 10bn $ job in it’s 4th year- huge boost to economically depressed ft. edward/ Glenn’s falls.) Economists will find ways to fix this, and Im not too worried about the collection at DIA. I think that the Media latches onto the collection’s value to sensationalize the whole thing. And of course the auction houses would be going over the collection- they’re horny to make the big sales and they think ‘dang, if that happened, we’d make out like Robbin Hood! better get ready in case it happens. A museum’s assets are called ‘priceless’ for a reason. They are worth much less in a situation like this than most people think.

  10. Hey no offense – just thought Hrag of all people should be sensitive to notion that critics have a right to voice their opinions without their colleagues demanding that they lose their jobs – and if my remarks were trolling, all I can say is, Hrag, you need to work a little harder on helping your readers to think a bit deeper …

  11. Detroit should take a “play” from the New York City “play book” and consolidate the surrounding “rich” suburbs like the 5 Burroughs of New York City. This would increase the tax revenues and shore up the cultural institutions and sports centers. Detroit has been the donut hole for too long- throw the life saver!
    A note about Peter Schjeldahl- consider where all the art in the museum comes from…some place that had to sell it, no?

  12. There’s little I love more than reading Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, but this article by Hrag Vartanian is formidable and persuasive in convincing me that my hero is burdened in his New Yorker piece by a lack of facts. I don’t think of Schjeldahl as stodgy, and I certainly don’t side with this call that he be fired, but I’d like to see the resolution of the city’s fiscal challenge met without disbursing its art collection.

    1. I agree with Greg here. The DIA was my childhood museum and remains the city’s cultural fortress. My much admired Schjeldahl seems to have over-stepped his expertise and fallen down the rabbit hole of provocation. Thank you Hrag for standing up to the art=asset mentality.

    2. He’s quite a good art critic, but he’s really very privileged and hangs around with too many super-rich people. He’s adopting their attitudes about the “47 percent”. 😉

  13. Is it just me or does the article read like Andy Borowitz hacked into Schjeldahl’s computer. Given the importance of the issue it seemed dashed off and snarky. Something’s amiss.

  14. That museum is a major asset to the city—and I don’t mean a monetary asset. DIA is the nicest, cleanest, most majestic building I saw in Detroit, with a killer art collection and a strong orientation toward Detroit’s history & audience. DIA is the number one reason why I would visit Detroit again.
    If that city has any interest in bringing in more artists (the ones who seem prone to gentrifying and revitalizing neighborhoods they inhabit), they absolutely should not remove or diminish the keystone that is DIA. They risk killing a new movement in their city, just as it’s getting started.

  15. Can this guy seriously believe that Detroit’s bankruptcy is about paying bills? This is about a complete restricting of an entire municipal system…. Selling stuff is really going to help that. I guess I have to assume he believes that art of any significance belongs in New York or some other city he visits…. To keep it safe from troglodytes, no doubt. Does he know metro Detroit residents passed a millage this past year in support of DIA operations?… there’s declining support for you!

    So what else would selling the DIA’s collection accomplish…

    1) It would deny access to Michigan’s 10 million citizens, access that I believe is a human right, to the incredible collection a visit to the DIA offers.

    2) It would deny to tens of thousands school children throughout Michigan, from Houghton-Hancock to Hudson, the opportunity to experience the DIA. An experience that can sometimes transformative and help to create more empathic and better citizens.

    3) It would deny an experience that I can promise you, is a once-in-a-lifetime event for some of these kids.

    1. I find Hrag’s argument relatively well-informed and thorough, even though I disagree with his call for PS to be fired and, ultimately, with his overall opinion.
      In other words, some kind of concessions must be made. It would not be the thin edge of the wedge for DIA to carefully identify a work that was paid for by City of Detroit (not given by anyone), the could fetch a decent amount and could be sold to another public institution currently bolstering its collection and possessed of the good will and resources to perhaps pay above market. One work of art and not one more than that.
      Of course this would be a beau geste, but it would be a beginning. That single gesture could launch a major international effort on the part of the DIA–and everyone else (museums, private collectors, artists and every other artworld expert) to raise money for the City. If this is a cause celebre, than take it to the top level!
      Solicit works for auction from those who find it easy to pay lip service to preserving the collection.
      Compel the City to establish a homestead act that would allow artists (with proven credentials) to own buildings in exchange for rehabbing them (this, among other possible ways of repopulating Detroit). And, artists, get over New York and look to Detroit, if you have’t already. Kevyn Orr, are you listening?
      The all or nothing resistance is not realistic. And pretending that Detroit’s difficulties are singular is highly disingenuous. Art collections in Phoenix or Fort Worth may not be at risk, but libraries, parks, hospitals and other municipal institutions are.
      Detroit is not going to be the only major US city facing bankruptcy. Poor financial management is not exclusive to Detroit. Depopulation is going to happen to many, many more US cities that, for now, may be booming, but will bust when they run out of certain resources (read: water) to support their vastly inflated and unsustainable populations.
      Detroit will turn around, but not if outsiders simply engage in a pitched argument about who gets to say what happens to art at the DIA.
      PS If art is not an asset, then WTF are all those hedge-fund managers doing buying and selling it?

  16. I think this is analogous to all the people who suggest that the Catholic Church should sell all its art, and feed the poor (for how long?).
    If the pieces of art have a relationship to Detroit in a unique and special way, then keep them. Consider selling some of the others.
    Another question — what is the relationship of the sports industry and the city of Detroit? Maybe the Pistons / Tigers etc. could pony up some cash…

  17. Actually, Kevyn Orr called on DIA Inc. to protect Detroit’s DIA art collection with artwork covenants, which is a far more creative solution than anyone else has proposed. Most just ignore the problem, hoping the other side will shut about pensions or museums. Orr’s proposal can save both.

  18. This is really quite typical: the privileged have this idea that, if you are poor, you are not allowed to own anything remotely pretty or valuable (because a beloved relative handed it down to you) or useful: it must all go on the block! You have to prove that you are genuinely poor by holding a fire sale, or shut up about it. I’ve seen it on many blogs about poverty: those people aren’t really poor because look, they all own microwaves and refrigerators! You’re not really poor: you have a computer that you’re using to post about poverty! Sell it, and then we, the privileged, will consider you really poor! Until you’re in a box on the street, stripped of all things that might be of interest to a privileged person and all your agency and all power, until you’re debased, YOU ARE NOT REALLY POOR. So shut up about your poverty.

    It’s like telling a poor woman that she has to go, right now, to hock the rose-gold necklace Aunt Tillie gave her on her death-bed, never mind the fact that a) it won’t make a dent in the poor woman’s poverty and b) Aunt Tillie had every expectation that the necklace would be handed down to the poor woman’s daughter, who’d one day gift it to her own daughter. But it would show the proper forelock-tugging sentiment the privileged so like to see in their poverty-stricken brethren.

    1. Could City at least sell building to a private non-profit (set up for the purpose), which could lease it back to DIA for a modest sum? Meantime, the non-profit could focus on raising maintenance endowment.

  19. there’s also an assumption that Detroit is the only city facing this kind of battle with the financial disaster that an “austerity for people / bailouts for banks” mentality is only beginning to manifest in this country. I think it’s important to think of Detroit as “first” and discussions like this are an important start to finding creative alternatives to what those in power, and the agendas of those profiting from bankrupting a city the size of detroit (looting might be appropriate)

  20. Congratulations on your power of persuasion, Hrag. Peter retracts his first post two days later . . .

    . . . and quotes your words as having an impact.

    “Some acute attacks have shown me the indefensibility of my position. For example, from a blogger, would I ‘suggest that Greece sell the Parthenon to pay its crippling national debt’? The principle of cultural patrimony is indeed germane, and it should be sacred..”

  21. Although I may disagree with Schjeldahl’s initial position for other reasons, I only had to read the first paragraph of Hrag’s piece to realize that he’s both confused about the relationship between art and and political borders as well as his own relationship with Schjeldahl. The Parthenon, national forests and coastlines are site specific; and where was it established that Peter is “stodgy” and how is that relevant?

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