Same Song, Different Verse

If you’ve been keeping up with the bankruptcy situation in Detroit, you’re probably aware that the situation is pretty dire. The city is home to thousands of abandoned buildings, ranging from grand industrial and commercial buildings to private homes. The sprawling metropolis’ population has steadily declined since the mid-20th century, but it was laid particularly low by the Great Recession. In 2013, the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, arguing that its debts far exceeded anything the city could afford to pay. After a series of court cases, the bankruptcy was allowed. Since the decision at the end of 2013, the city has been in negotiation with its creditors over the terms of its bankruptcy, to be decided by a federal judge this year.

William Livingstone House in Detroit, as photographed by Yves Marchand & Roland Meffre: http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/
William Livingstone House in Detroit, as photographed by Yves Marchand & Roland Meffre: http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/

One of the key pieces in the debate is the fate of the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA is home to an extraordinary collection, ranked as one of the top six in the United States. It holds the a Van Gogh self-portrait, the first Van Gogh painting to become part of an American museum’s collections, along with extensive collections of art from around the world. The DIA offers free admission to local residents (those who live in Detroit and three surrounding counties), something that is sadly increasingly rare.

The LA Times does a much better job unpacking the legal and political aspects of bankruptcy case than I am equipped to do, but the crux of the situation is that the city has been working on a “grand bargain” which involves the state, several private foundations, and the museum raising some $820 million to fund the municipal pensions that are on the chopping block. In exchange, the city will give the collection and the building to the affiliated nonprofit that runs the museum. This bargain allows the art collection to remain local and available while rescuing the pensions and benefits of city workers.

Detroit’s creditors, however, are less than pleased. Financial Guaranty Insurance Company has insisted that the collection is worth far more than $800 million, and want the entire collection to go on the auction block to repay Detroit’s debt. The infamous Koch brothers have weighed in, with their PAC Americans for Prosperity threatening to “make life difficult” in the next election for any Republicans who vote for the grand bargain, despite its popularity with Michigan residents on both sides of the political aisle.

Edgar Degas' The Violinist and the Young Woman, part of the DIA's permanent collection. Via wikimedia commons.
Edgar Degas’ The Violinist and the Young Woman, part of the DIA’s permanent collection. Via wikimedia commons.

It’s hard to see this story and not be reminded of all of the art and museum collections currently and previously under threat. The Maier Museum situation of course comes to mind, along with the Fisk University’s sale of its Georgia O’Keeffe collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum (founded by a Wal-Mart heiress). It’s also hard not to be frustrated by this trend of putting price tags on cultural heritage.

For me, access to cultural heritage is a key part of the democratic experience. There was a time when people believed that fine art was the exclusive purview of the wealthy and aristocratic, and that ordinary people could not appreciate such things. Museums like the DIA are the opposite of this notion. Those collections belong in a very real sense to every visitor who walks through its doors to visit them. For locals especially, the chance to see a collection like that of the DIA in their hometown is a chance to visit far away places practically for free. As globalization has contributed to a sense of same-ness, museums offer a place to experience the truly unique in person.

Detroit has suffered in the last ten years or so. The population has declined, and the built environment has suffered tremendously. To further gut the city’s cultural heritage by auctioning off its signature art collection would be a devastating blow, and to what end? So that wealthy creditors won’t have a bad quarter? To appease a pair of billionaires? Detroit has taken extraordinary measures to rebuild itself, with local businesses and government going to great lengths to encourage people to return to the city and revitalize it. In a way, it would be poetic if a city built on capitalist enterprise was destroyed by it, but there would be no beauty in that poetry, only a landscape whose abandoned buildings reflect the barrenness of its soul, and the first bleak signpost on a road many cities may shortly follow.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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