The Spectacle Blog

Detroit’s Imperiled Vault of Cultural Treasures

By on 1.13.14 | 8:01AM

Astute Spectator readers may have observed that I am a fan of post-apocalyptic and dystopian films and imagery. There is something hauntingly beautiful in seeing the familiar laid to waste. A recent move to Michigan meant that it was only a matter of time until I made my way to Detroit, a post-apocalyptic landscape that exists outside of the realm of cinematic fantasy. This first visit, however, was not to survey the ruins, but to visit a more conventional cultural treasure: the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The sprawling complex contains works by some of the world's greatest artists, including Matisse, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Warhol, Cézanne, Whistler, and Rodin, just to mention a few. But you'd better drop by soon. While the museum no longer receives financial assistance from the City of Detroit, some of the most stunning pieces in its collection of 66,000 works are owned by the once great metropolis. Detroit's emergency manager, Kevin Orr, has said that these assets could be held vulnerable in the city's bankruptcy proceedings.

Over 2,000 of these plum pieces were appraised by famed auction house Christie's—I will resist the temptation to make the obvious topical joke in asking whether they've got a bridge to sell us—and were valued at between $454 and $867 million. An interactive slideshow of some of the most notable works is available here. But somewhere south of a billion dollars is spit in the bucket considering Detroit's debt stands at around $18 billion. At least $5 billion of this debt, it is worth noting, is the result of unfunded pension liabilities rung up by progressive pols all too happy to cozy up with their union pals and pass the bill on to the taxpayer.

Still, it would be an even greater violation of the public trust to break up this repository of civilization's greatest fruits to cover only a fraction of such staggering debt. And in fairness to the museum, they have long sought to jump from the sinking ship by raising their endowment. Back in 2012, they were also able to persuade voters in three surrounding metropolitan counties to agree to a temporary property tax hike, in return giving residents free admission for the duration of the 10-year millage. Evidently the voters appreciate what they've gotten for their money; almost 80 percent of museum visitors come from those counties. Perhaps they are the only ones with the grit to visit downtown Detroit. All the more reason that these victims of poor policy-making deserve cultural respite. Kudos must be given to philanthropist A. Paul Schaap who has kicked in $5 million of his own money and is working his network of friends to raise the $500 million required to free the DIA from the bondage of an inept municipality.

One of my favorite works? An 1837 painting by Thomas Mickell Burnham entitled "First State Election in Detroit, Michigan." He depicts a top-hat-wearing pol surreptitiously accepting a bribe. The more things change...well, you know the rest.

I'd like to take the opportunity to address some of the reader comments on my last post about Melissa Harris-Perry, public intellectualism, and tampon earrings. From fine arts to toilet fasion, all in a day's work. Some of you seemed to suggest that I was too soft on Ms. Harris-Perry in yielding that she is intelligent. I'm no softie; I recently spent an entire weekend arguing with "progressives" who spuriously branded me a racist because of my unrelenting nature. However, as one commenter pointed out, it is possible to both be intelligent and to use your smarts to dubious ends. You have to be pretty swift in order to not only convince yourself that the world is as it isn't, but to get others to nod in agreement. I place Ms. Harris-Perry in this category. I might vehemently disagree with her claims, or even find them to be nonsensical at times, but she is an important part of the public conversation if only because she influences a wide audience. The right tactic might be to refute her, it might be to ridicule her, but we dare not ignore her.

For those who enjoy discussing the political and cultural issues of the day, please feel free to interact with me on Twitter @BillZeiser.

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