Detroit is living a real life ethical dilemma these days. If a city is burning, do we pull out the old woman or do we rescue that portrait of Van Gogh?
Detroit went into bankruptcy last week. The emergency manager in Detroit, appointed by the State of Michigan, has been eyeing the vast and valuable art collection held by the Detroit Institute of Arts. The city owns this museum and its assets are potentially up for grabs as creditors and city pensioners alike look for some good money coming out of a bad situation.
Union contracts can be rewritten. Creditors may get pennies on the dollar for their investments. The retirees may find their pensions slashed. Money is needed for turning the streetlights back on that have been dark too long; money is needed for the razing of thousands of blighted buildings; money is needed for police, fire, and EMS services that seldom serve city residents in a timely manner. The city population keeps dropping and the tax base can’t support the over $17 billion debt.
The DIA has one of the best art collections in America, and both tourists and residents would feel the pain if it was dismantled.
But real people may get hurt while the art still hangs on the wall.
A letter writer to the editor of a Detroit newspaper said that if he had to make a choice between gutting retiree benefits or selling city assets, he would be saying, “What is the opening bid for this beautiful Van Gogh?”
This is hard for me since I find the DIA to be vital and relevant. I need art and bread, and I believe (perhaps naively) that art can uplift everyone in society. Detroit without its great museums, would be even sadder.
So what’s it gonna be? Should the Degas and Matisse survive? Or does the old woman have any need for a stinking painting?