The Vultures Are Circling

John Haber
in New York City

The Fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Two brothers have fought and died like heroes at the gates, but at each other's hand and in each other's arms. And neither was so blameless as may appear.

One had claimed more power than his due, usurping the kingdom. The other had recruited foreigners to wage war against his own city. Now one will receive a proper burial, with honors, with the other left to rot for carrion—but which one? Did either one deserve to die, and what if those who defy the accepted answer will die as well? One must answer now. The vultures are circling. Andrew Moore's The Aurora, Brush Park Neighborhood (Queens Museum of Art, 2008)

You may recognize the plot from Antigone and the city as Thebes, but Sophocles could well be describing Detroit now (but see the endnote and a related article for further updates and signs of hope). As the city faced bankruptcy, some sought to pose against one another its citizens and its art. Could the sale of the Detroit Institute of Arts or its collections prevent the loss of essential services? Now, I hate to speculate (and, as a late addition, donors have stepped forth in the new year with a pledge that will preserve the collection and rescue the city from bankruptcy). The act seems so unlikely on the face of it, and civic leaders first denied even considering it. And yet the city's emergency manager charged Christie's with assessing hundreds of works—and speculation rages, to the point that some sympathetic to the city encourage it.

The proposed solution, I shall argue, is pointless, outright counterproductive, and immoral (although, other than that, just fine). It depends on a fantasy version of the current crisis, like the conservative dream of balancing the budget by cutting foreign aid and welfare queens. It misses a museum's essential contribution to the city's long-term fiscal health, as a source of tourist dollars and as an "anchor tenant" in reviving the inner city. It treats art and, by implication, humanity as no more than dollar signs. However, just as important, all this answers the wrong question entirely, by agreeing to weigh the needs of a museum and its public, where the real winners would be the vultures.

The heart of a city

What, some are asking, is art worth, and is it worth the sacrifice of human lives? Potential buyers are asking at least the first question, as the city itself sought estimates from a leading auction house—which has since priced the collection at between $452 and $866 million. The second question is more chilling. No one before has suggested abolishing one of the nation's finest museums, and pitting art against life should scare anyone. Should Detroit be forced to dine on its cultural heritage to survive? While art has not lacked for outraged defenders, with all their moral certainty and superiority, one need not stop there. The entire question is loaded, in favor of neither the people nor the museum, but the wealthy who hold the city's debt and disdain them both.

The outcome sure sounds unlikely. The city may not even have the right to sell, whether because of the museum's charter or terms commonly attached to the gifts that have fed it. Maybe the comptroller floated the rumor knowing it was preposterous. Surely, he may have reasoned, the very outrage would force government and the private sector to rally on behalf of Detroit, much as it had for the auto industry that once stood for the American modern, and the needed funds would pour in. Parmigianino's Circumcision (Detroit Institute of Arts, c. 1523–1524)President Obama tried much the same ploy to hold the line when it came to Congress and the "sequester," and one knows how that turned out, but compromise has served him no better, as he has learned in refusing to negotiate the debt limit. Then again, maybe the vultures themselves started the rumor, in hopes that they could buy at rock-bottom prices and cash in.

Even if selling were legal, it sounds so obviously wrong that I wanted to ignore the whole debate. Privatization as a means of governing has proved little more than profiteering, and so it would here. For one thing, it is utterly impractical, even as a short-term solution. Detroit could sell off the museum's highlights, but then it would have the burden of maintaining a huge institution that no longer matters and that no one wants to visit. It could sell off only lesser lights, but then it might not raise much money—and in fact even the sale of major works would not make much of a dent in the city's financial crisis. It could put the entire museum up for sale, but no could possibly afford it, and who, then, would occupy the building anyway?

The long term looks even worse, in spades. The arts bring a city not just revenue from tourists and natives alike, but life. When New York stood on the edge of bankruptcy during the Ford administration, it did not drop dead, but neither did it sell Central Park to developers. (True, New York City does not own MoMA or the Met, but it does have other cultural resources, not to mention the powers of taxing revenues and of eminent domain.) The situation should be clearer still in Detroit, which has suffered from not just the loss of industry, but from bad urban planning that favors suburban sprawl at the expense of an urban core. Meanwhile the museum's immediate neighborhood is a true success story, just as culture has fueled immigration and gentrification in New York—often as not, at the expense of its creators.

How clever, then: the city is dying, so get rid of the heart of the city. And art belongs to the public, as a resource and as a right. When it vanishes into private collections, everybody loses. I must admit to mixed feelings even about the efforts to return art looted thanks to imperialism and World War II. The looting was horrendous, but often more of the art is, for now, on public display. Would Detroit's public really feel safer without shared spaces in a proud city?

Still, the well-meaning are asking: is art worth human lives? Yet that, too, makes things sound simpler than they are. Taken to its logical conclusion, the question could have the arts vanish altogether, as long as people somewhere, somehow are dying. Few seriously suggest that artists and their audiences everywhere pack it in, and art in Detroit has a particularly rich history. Nor is anyone making a case for why one should then single out artists rather than, oh, people with actual money.

A face on human life

No one wants to put a value on a human life. If you are asked how large an offer you would need to make you kill someone, you will no doubt say that no amount of money will do. But that stacks the question, because it makes objecting to any proposed action impossible, however misguided, as long as you can claim that lives are at stake. Besides, posing too stark a question may actually backfire, by minimizing the problem. Exactly who here is dying—and if the city would suffer only in the quality of its streets and its schools, does that make the loss any more bearable? It takes a vibrant educational and cultural environment, including artists, to get people to think clearly enough and to feel deeply enough to seek out real questions and real solutions.

Ultimately, that is why one cherishes art (although pleasure has a place, too)—because it puts not just a value on human life, but a face. More often than not, that means broadening or rejecting existing questions. David Smith's Cubi I (Detroit Institute of Arts, estate of the artist/VAGA, 1963)Philosophy is full of puzzles, like the "trolley problem," which asks whether one would flip the switch that diverts a trolley onto a different track if that would kill fewer people. Those are good puzzles, if they help in thinking about what judgments underlie moral distinctions. For my money, though, first-year textbooks have way too many such puzzles, as opposed to a full context for ethics beyond utilitarianism, in the ordinary course of human lives. As the saying goes, hard cases make bad law.

Here, too, a hard case deserves a deeper scrutiny. One can argue all one likes for saving a museum, and I suppose I just have, to make even life in Detroit a little more bearable. In ruling that the city may proceed with bankruptcy, a federal judge took pains to state that "a one-time infusion of cash by selling an asset" would not have averted the city's "inevitable financial failure." Yet it is just as important, and I would say much more so, to ask why one should be arguing at all. Just who set these brothers against one another, and why assume that exactly one can rest in peace? How about looking instead at the vultures?

No one is asking. The right questions include who might profit from the sale of art, but even more who will profit if the sale enables Detroit to meet the full face value of its financial obligations. It is no coincidence that the governor imposing bankruptcy is Republican, while the likely winners are the wealthy. Somehow, the city has to take a hit, with the usual demand for austerity that has done so much damage to the economy of cities, states, and nations. Somehow services have to go, and people have to lose their jobs, all in the name of saving them. Meanwhile the owners of municipal debt should not lose a penny.

There are plenty of ways to restructure debt, federal and local budgets, and a city itself. New York has tried its share over the years, when it did not go bankrupt. Some led to pretty dark days, and some finally helped lift the darkness. Everyone got a little dirty, not least of all the art world. This is not the place to go into its commercial side and what that does to art. Just beware of anyone behind the curtain with clean hands.

In Sophocles, as in myth, Creon was left to stand as city leader. He had not sought the part, and he wanted to restore peace and the city's honor. For him, that meant naming a hero and leaving another unburied in the sun. He learned tragically that he, not the children of Oedipus, had lost the high moral ground in the process. I do not expect much more of America's civic leaders, but I do expect more from a real-life dialogue about cities and the arts—especially from artists and others who take pride in seeing both sides of a story. And the vultures are circling.

BACK to John's arts home page

As I wrote this in late August 2013, the circling seemed endless, with no clear outcome in sight. A related article makes a different kind of case, based on a visit to the collection, with additional images here. A ruling that Detroit was eligible to reorganize under federal bankruptcy law came down December 3, and Christie released its estimate the next day—in which, you will be pleased to know, Pieter Bruegel in his Wedding Dance is worth more than Petrus Christus.

Signs of hope came January 13, 2014, in the form of a pledge from the Ford Foundation and others of more than $350 million on behalf of the museum's collection. On January 29 the museum pledged to raise more, to become a self-sustaining nonprofit rather than city property. On June 9, the city's auto makers pledged an additional $26 million, on November 8 a federal court approved the "grand bargain" that will save the collection and that allowed the city to exit bankruptcy proceedings December 12. The collection will pass from the hands of Detroit to a trust.

Just to explain, Philippa Foot posed the "trolley problem" in 1967, expanding on a scenario posed by Judith Jarvis Thomson. It seeks to get at the intuition that in taking action, as in flipping the switch, one feels more responsible, even when the utilitarian measure of net lives demands that you set that feeling aside. I shall let you worry about it for now.


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