DIA Gins Up PR Battle Against Kevyn Orr

Seems you don't want to be the guy who tells the Detroit Institute of Arts that its treasures are in jeopardy if the city winds up in bankruptcy.

In typical shoot-the-messenger style, the DIA is spinning a story that Detroit Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr actually wants to sell the city-owned artwork to settle a portion of the Motor City's $15 billion debt.

A convenient story, but entirely untrue.

Orr merely informed the DIA that its collection — valued from several billion dollars up to $50 billion by some estimates — wasn't protected should the city file Chapter 9. A word to the wise, it is said, should be sufficient. However, the DIA chose once again to play public relations instead of conscientious art stewards by throwing Orr under the bus.

Orr is not the first person to bring up the possibility that DIA's Van Goghs and Turners could end up on the auction block in the event of bankruptcy. One extremely astute writer pointed out this very same possibility last August when the DIA successfully spent $2 million it claimed it didn't have to convince residents of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties to fork over a 10-year, 0.2 millage.

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The millage is funding an endowment for operating costs, which in part protects those high salaries enjoyed by the upper echelon of DIA employees. It's sadly irresponsible, but true, that the DIA waited 127 years before seriously endeavoring to build an endowment fund. Adding insult to injury, they dinged recession-weary metro Detroiters to cover their negligence, and made no effort whatsoever to address the unprotected assets housed on Woodward Avenue.

This last is especially galling as the DIA continues its management laxity by declaring presumptuously that creditors cannot seize the museum's works in the event of a bankruptcy. An angry creditor might just convince a bankruptcy judge otherwise.

Failing in their first strategy, the DIA can deploy the same emotional tactics that helped pass last summer's millage. Namely, declare that the DIA's very existence is in peril, as has happened repeatedly in the past. After working Michigan residents into an existential frenzy, the DIA can then implore Lansing politicians to preserve intact the DIA collection by purchasing it from Detroit using taxpayer dollars.

Nowhere in these scenarios is the Michigan taxpayer off the hook for the privilege of roughly 400,000 DIA visitors annually. Yes, the DIA is a "gem" loaded with "priceless treasures" and all that melodramatic yada yada with which your writer — neither Philistine nor Neanderthal he — in fact agrees. However, much of that art is owned by a city awash in so many shades of red ink it makes a Henri Matisse painting seem monochromatic by comparison.

Reality sometimes trumps aesthetic considerations for both individuals and art institutes, and the DIA should be no exception. However, it's doubtful that any politician would allow DIA assets to be sold off on their watch.

Neither is it likely that the DIA will be privatized in much the same manner as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, to the extent that the building and artwork aren't owned and operated by the Windy City's Park District, the Art Institute of Chicago. More's the pity.

And coaccession — a method of selling shares or "covenants" in museum artwork while the institution maintains it in its permanent exhibit — developed by self-proclaimed Evanston, Ill., "art finance innovator" Mark White, Ph.D., will remain untried and therefore unproven.

The DIA probably will continue to chug along in much the same manner it has for the past century, completely oblivious to the economic realities crashing, like the subject in Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s "Landscape With the Fall of Icarus," to its doom. As W.H. Auden observed of the painting in "Musee des Beaux Arts:"

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Not for the expensive delicate ship that is the DIA any long-term solutions that don't include public monies and political arm twisting that they'll either lose artwork or shutter completely. Instead, the museum will damn the torpedoes, Kevyn Orr, or anything else disappearing in the green water as it sails calmly on.

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