New Yorker Art Critic Justifies Looting of Detroit Museum


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.

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