Should the Detroit Museum sell off some of its art?

Virginia Postrel says yes:

…great artworks shouldn’t be held hostage by a relatively unpopular museum in a declining region. The cause of art would be better served if they were sold to institutions in growing cities where museum attendance is more substantial and the visual arts are more appreciated than they’ve ever been in Detroit. Art lovers should stop equating the public good with the status quo.

On the fiscal front, Detroit has a much stronger claim on its museum’s assets than the typical U.S. city government. During the 1920s, when the local economy was booming and the museum was still building its collection, the DIA relied on annual appropriations from the city not just to fund operations, as many museums do, but also to buy art. That marked “a significant departure from the norm for major American art museums,” observed art historian Jeffrey Abt in his detailed 2001 history “A Museum on the Verge.” City dollars paid for the core of the museum’s collection, including the Van Gogh, Bruegel, Matisse and Bellini.

We easily can imagine that more people would see those artworks if they were located in Los Angeles or other larger and growing cities.  Nonetheless I believe such a sale would set off alarm bells for conservatives, related to Arnold Kling’s “civilization vs. barbarism” axis.  Detroit would be sending a signal that it will never even try to go back to what it was, much as if a university spent down most of its endowment and relied on borrowing.  Still, perhaps that is where we are at with Detroit.

Another issue is that deaccessioning makes all donors feel less confidence in the stewards of their gifts.  If I see Detroit selling off its artworks, should a collector donate his Haitian paintings to the Figge Museum, in Davenport, Iowa?  What if the farmland bubble bursts?  Might they sell those paintings to Miami or maybe western North Dakota?  How many donors know that Detroit has this special history of municipally funded art?  But again, letting Detroit and the Detroit Museum rot also won’t do much for donor confidence at the national level; it is a precarious institution in any case and perhaps the purchaser will take better care of the pictures and also market them more effectively (otherwise why buy them?).

In any case, I expect previous norms against deaccessioning to weaken with the onset of The Great Reset.


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