Can art save Detroit? It can help, so it should

Natasha Mayer Political Consultant
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Everywhere I go, people marvel about Detroit’s calamity as if it’s a foreign country struck by a freak natural disaster. Not me. That disaster is my home town.

Ok, ok, I’m not from within the city limits. Like nearly 80 percent of those who currently call Detroit home, I’m from the one of the “nice suburbs.”

If Detroit’s death sentence was breaking news to most Americans, it comes as no shock to any Michigander. For as long as I lived there, most residents ventured into the city only when en route to the Canadian border or the odd Tigers game.

Even my high school prom, held at the Detroit Yacht Club, wasn’t reason enough to let protective parents let my classmates venture into the city limits — it was not well attended. I knew my way around only because my dad worked downtown and my European mother insisted that going to a museum, the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) by default, was crucial to her daughter’s upbringing. I left Michigan in the early 1990’s, amazed at the lack of rush hour traffic when I’d visit in recent years.

So it came as no shock to me when the state appointed a Detroit emergency city manager, Kevyn Orr, and he chose to file for bankruptcy earlier this summer. Michigan’s elected officials, like governor Rick Snyder, supported the bankruptcy because, well, why should Detroit’s financial problems be a drain on the Great Lake State? Why, they reasoned, should Michiganders who live in picket fence suburbs and wealthy liberal college towns pay the debts of the state’s largest, least photogenic city when a judge can just wipe them away?

This potential bankruptcy’s result puts the pension funds of Detroit cops, firefighters and municipal workers in jeopardy. Can you imagine what it was like to be a cop in Detroit, which boasts the country’s highest violent crime rate for a city larger than 200,000 residents, since 1988? (i.e. the Robocop years.) Now imagine retiring after 25 years of hard work with none of the pension you’d earned.

To his credit, the new city manager is trying to extricate Detroit from its debts without screwing those retirees. News broke recently that Kevyn Orr had found an improbable, though only partial, solution; selling some of the DIA’s assets — many purchased over the years with city funds — to pay down the city’s debt.

But Detroit never has it easy. Apparently, selling any of the DIA’s billion dollar art collection is a divisive issue. Michigan’s Attorney General, Bill Schuette, has gone as far as to issue a (non-binding) opinion that city-owned art – purchased with public money — isn’t an asset, contrary to the opinion of art law experts. Basically, he says that the museum should remain intact for the benefit of the people of Michigan. In real terms, he is placing suburban limousine liberal art connoisseurs (who, in my experience, are more likely to fund their 16 year old daughter’s trip to Italy than let her drive the new Beemer into town) above retired city workers in the state’s priorities. This is especially rich for Schuette and other state officials, considering that their publicly funded pensions are larger than those of Detroit’s city workers.

Don’t get me wrong, the DIA is a wonderful place, I benefitted from its treasures for many years. Unfortunately, I was one of few locals who did. The museum long ago cut back its operating schedule. DIA director Graham Beal wrote an open letter regarding the possibility of leveraging the art for Detroit’s sake, saying, “selling any art would be tantamount to closing the museum.” I don’t doubt his devotion to his craft, he has managed somehow to keep the museum doors open, and even acquire additional art while most other city services were in decline. He did it by — wait for it — borrowing from endowments left to the museum by wealthy families.

Most Detroit residents have no such inheritance. Kevyn Orr and others have a responsibility to pensioners, bond-holders and taxpayers to find some tangible value in that ruined, corrupt city. If that value lies in just one building, it would be downright negligent not to leverage it. One of the most famous items in the DIA is, ironically, Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals, a series of frescoes the Marxist painted to honor Ford assembly line workers and, of course, the hardworking common man. Whatever your political beliefs, the murals are quite beautiful. I cannot rationalize the ideology of people who admire them yet insist they stay put, for fewer people to see than they might otherwise, at the cost of hurling retired first responders into a future of thankless poverty.

Art lovers and Michiganders are welcome to learn from and enjoy Detroit’s remaining artifacts. But to paraphrase the patron of the industry murals, Henry Ford, “instead of finding fault, they should find a remedy.” Clinging to pieces of art as the city defaults on pensioners is no remedy.