Art Lovers Get the Fantods over Possible Detroit Museum Sale -- But Really, It's Only Money

Occasional correspondent Bill Marvel, who defends the high holiness of art, sent me the following headline this morning, "DIA's art collection could face sell-off to satisfy Detroit's creditors," along with a personal note: "I know this will warm your heart."

The DIA is the Detroit Institute of Art, their big museum up there. I'm from Detroit. Bill thinks I'm wicked because I didn't take the side of the Nasher Sculpture Center here in Dallas when it said a nearby condo tower was burning up its artwork with light reflected off its windows. My own headline was, "Ain't No Call fer Us to Pick a Side in Them Rich Folks' Museum Feudin'," which ought to give you the flavor.

Are we caught up here? Oh, no: Detroit is bankrupt. It owes billions and billions. Somebody up there floated the idea of selling off artwork in the DIA, which is worth billions and billions, to pay off the debt.

Predictably, billions and billions of Bill Marvels leaped to the fore to denounce the very idea, the very idea! I picture Marlon Brando with snakes on his face in Apocalypse Now, muttering, "The horror, the horror!" Oh yes, heaven forefend that anyone should think of art as money, in spite of the fact that its principal and most important role in modern culture is to serve as a form of currency.

And this thought occurs: You know who might not think it was so totally terrible to force Detroit to sell off some of its paintin's? The guy whose electrical supply warehouse or storm sewer repair contracting shop is in the toilet because he did a bunch of work for Detroit and didn't get paid. He's sitting around right now with snakes on his face muttering, "The money, the money!"

There was an interesting lawsuit floating around Dallas for a time until it got kicked out of federal court, alleging all sorts of machinations and shenanigans in the acquisition by the Dallas Museum of Art of the Emery and Wendy Reeves collection, a valuable trove acquired in the early '80s from a long-former model who had become the eccentric bibulous widow of a globe-trotting publisher. She died in 2007.

See also: Ain't No Call fer Us to Pick a Side in Them Rich Folks' Museum Feudin'

As I say, the suit was kicked out of court, and so its allegations must be taken as unproved. But I was around when the Reeves collection was being reeled in, and I had access to a little of the behind-the-scenes as a reporter and columnist at the time. When I saw the suit, which alleged all sorts of liberties taken and exploitation of an old lady's vulnerabilities, I did think to myself, "Yeah, don't get caught between a priapic art museum and the artwork it's lusting for."

Just saying. Museums ain't churches, you know. By the way, there's lots of law on the books about artwork and bankruptcy, having to do mainly with the habit of art galleries of slamming the doors, declaring bankruptcy and then selling off works consigned to them by artists to pay off their debts. It's not pretty, but, you know what? The world of art as wealth isn't all that pretty, at least not any prettier than crude oil as wealth or just plain old fashioned money.

At a certain point, it is money. Art becomes money. Rich people collect it and show it off for the same reason people in the Park Cities here pay companies thousands of dollars to install electrified nativity scenes on their lawns in December. It's a way to put your net worth statement out in the yard where people will see it.

So I say this. If somebody allowed Detroit to skate on billions in debt, that means somebody else is owed billions. They have a right to get paid. Why should wealth hoarded as public art be somehow sacrosanct and immune from collection for public debt?

Put it on eBay, man. Let somebody down here in Dallas grab it and put it in front of his house next Christmas. I can't imagine a safer place for high art than a Park Cities lawn. Think of the fun. The dude next door might amp up his baby Jesus scene and start reflecting too much light on the art. It could be a battle of the net worth statements. I'd load up the family and drive by for that.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze