Now that my Art League Houston residency is finished and I’m done exhibiting for the year, I’m ready to get back to blogging regularly about art — in Houston and beyond. I enjoy writing my stories for Arts + Culture magazine, such as this review of the Menil Collection’s Byzantine Things in the World exhibition and my Loose Ends column on the reunification of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s European galleries, but they always leave me with more to say than I can fit on the page, and I end up kinda-sorta blogging on Facebook or the comments sections of other writers’ posts — e.g. Harbeer Sandhu’s welcome Houston Is Insipid // Enmired State of Mind screed — so I might as well try to systematize things.
Henri Matisse, ‘The Windshield, On the Road to Villacoublay,’ 1917. Cleveland Museum of Art
Ideally I’d go through a site redesign and “rebranding” before reemerging, but as has become my custom every time I do a performative art-meets-art-criticism thingy, I’m about to embark on another road trip, so this blog’s early history as a travelogue will be revived minus the sex-worker part (I’ve been re-retired from the world’s oldest freelance gig since February). I’ll be flying to St. Louis on Saturday to start this one. Tentative itinerary: the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Des Moines w/the folks (unfortunately the museum will be closed while I’m there), Walker Art Center/Minneapolis Institute of Arts, possibly museums in Madison, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS OR BUST, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University, and the Saint Louis Art Museum.
The trip was inspired by the possibility that Detroit’s creditors might try to force the city to sell off the Detroit Institute of Arts’ by-all-accounts superb collection. This article by Nicholas Wapshott explains why that move would amount to giving up on the city:
… [E]ven if the estimates reflect only half the money that may be raised, it is only going to provide half the money the city needs to become solvent. If there were no other considerations apart from monetary, however, putting a collection of publicly owned art up for auction would be a sure, if undignified, way of raising cash.
Economically, however, it would be a disaster. Art is not like gold, which has few uses except as a store of value. Sell gold and you can buy back gold. Sell rare masterpieces and they can rarely, if ever, be recovered. Fine art has a value way beyond its mere price. To liquidate the DIA’s art would be a short-term fix that would soon redound on those who say they have Detroit’s best interests at heart. …
To sell off the DIA’s collection in a hurriedly arranged fire sale would send a clear signal that Detroit is washed up, a dead end, an urban experiment that did not survive the rigors of the market. Could Detroit endure a long and virulent campaign by art lovers all over America portraying the Motor City as the broken-backed capital of philistinism? Investors would conclude that Detroit is finished and take their money elsewhere. …
As Tom Campbell, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, put it, “Even in the darkest days of New York City’s fiscal crisis of 1975, and the national economic meltdown of 2008, the cultural treasures closely identified with our own city were never on the table — never considered an asset that might be cashed-in during a crunch to bridge a negative balance sheet.”
Unfortunately, cries of “save the DIA’s art” are all too easily satirized, as Detroit Free Press business columnist Tom Walsh demonstrates:
Many attendees at the Detroit Regional Chamber gathering were buzzing with anger Wednesday evening over earlier statements by Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr that DIA artworks could possibly become entangled in a Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceeding.
Rich people will stop bequeathing art to the museum, they wailed. Swell traveling exhibits will skip the DIA, which will cease to exist as a respected art house if its treasures are peddled to creditors at a bankruptcy garage sale.
Really? Is it possible, I thought, that otherwise intelligent Michigan people still don’t get it, that a massive financial collapse wreaks drastic change throughout the institution?
Do we not recall that the General Motors had to ditch its Saturn, Pontiac, Hummer and Saab brands, fire its CEO and wipe out all of its common stockholders as part of its bankruptcy and bailout?
For years and years, as Detroit kept piling on debt to an unsustainable level of $16 billion, it was popular to blame the mess on mismanagement, intransigent labor unions, poor employee morale and assume those culprits would pay the price when the reckoning finally came.
But, gee, now it has suddenly dawned on the C-suite executives — and their foundations that support the arts — that some of their pet interests are endangered, too.
It takes some nerve to advocate total capitulation to the unregulated market, which has been fueled by the same creditor class that screwed Detroit and is now turning the screws on Detroit, and then to try to paint that viewpoint as the stick-it-to-the rich position. But Walsh is joined by Virginia Postrel, who tries to sound like less of a philistine by advocating that DIA artworks be sold to the Getty, which gets more tourists, as if tourists should take precedence of a museum’s service to the people of its city.
But why wouldn’t Postrel take that view when the interdependence of the travel industry and arts organizations, whose funding is often tied to their ability — perceived or actual — to put heads in hotel beds? Why wouldn’t she advocate selling off the DIA’s holdings when she can point to statements by its former director?
In 1931, the man who built the collection, director William Valentiner, argued for continued city funding by citing how much the works’ value had appreciated. “The Brueghel painting we purchased for $38,000 is valued at more than $150,000,” he said. “If the city were to sell, piece by piece, the objects of art it has purchased, they would realize more than five times the amount paid for them.” Valentiner certainly wasn’t advocating such sales, but his statement demonstrates that they weren’t inconceivable.
As Postrel shows, when art boosters use economic arguments to talk about the importance of art, it’s only a matter of time before somebody comes along and says, “Hey, you know what would really make an economic impact?”
Still, if ever a city could use some cultural tourism right about now, it’s Detroit. And people who were tweeting their support for the DIA from Venice in between shots of the fabulous time they were having at La Biennale shouldn’t wait for someone to organize a biennial to get to the Motor City, visit one of the country’s best museums (and what appears to be an interesting emerging art scene) and spend some fucking money in Detroit and make sure Detroit knows you’re why they’re there.
I expect the ways in which cities use and misuse art to tell the world stories about themselves to be one of this blog’s ongoing motifs. Another will be looking at what museums are and aren’t doing to make their collections more accessible to their cities’ not-so-well-heeled residents. Another will simply involve posting pictures or videos of, and thinking out loud about, the art I see, sometimes relating all of the above to what else is going on in journalism and in the world. I’ll probably do a fair amount of cross-posting on A+C’s website, especially as we work on retooling things for the fall. Follow me on Twitter (@dbhypend) to keep up with it all. In the meantime, pardon our dust while I gradually repurpose this blog, taking away some pages and putting up new ones and fiddling with the appearance.