DetroitInstituteoftheArts2010B

In today’s Acton Commentary, “It’s Time to Privatize the Detroit Institute of Arts,” I look at the case of the DIA in the context of Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings.

One of my basic points is that it is not necessary for art to be owned by the government in order for art to serve the public. Art needn’t be publicly-funded in order to contribute to the common good.

In the piece I criticize Hrag Vartanian for this conflation, but this view is in fact pretty common and well established. In the Journal of Markets & Morality, David Michael Phelps reviews Art in Public: Politics, Economics, and a Democratic Culture by Lambert Zuidervaart (Cambridge, 2011), which as Phelps puts it, concludes that “direct subsidies are warranted both in terms of the government’s responsibilities and society’s needs.” Phelps ably dissects the numerous problems and complications with such a view.

The case of the DIA and the various responsibilities of public and private entities certainly is complex. As Graham W. J. Beal, the DIA’s director, put it in the NYT yesterday, the DIA’s situation is “singular and highly complicated.”

My proposed solution, to fully privatize the DIA, not only in its operations but also in terms of its holdings, ownership, and governance, is intended to liberate the institute from the politics of the city of Detroit. The dynamics of the complex situation include the need for the city to liquidate assets and leverage resources to pay down debt. As it stands, the DIA’s collection is an asset of the city of Detroit. What needs to happen is that the city divest itself of any stake or ownership interest in the DIA without having the collection, or its most salient parts as some have suggested, leaving the DIA.

For the DIA to continue to have long-term sustainability and to be independent of the trials and travails that the city government will face requires just this kind of radical separation.

But given the realities of the city’s political and economic situation, I’m not sanguine about the prospects for such a solution. Things are highly politicized and complicated, including the reality of the twenty-year agreement between the DIA operating foundation and the city of Detroit, as well as the passage of a millage which had been expected to generate $23 million each year.

The city would have to recognize that its more basic responsibilities should be prioritized over holding on to a collection of fine works of art. What is more likely, however, is that even if a private charitable trust or foundation could be put in place to acquire the assets of the DIA, the city would be inclined to leverage such assets, essentially holding them hostage, in order to extract the highest level of possible compensation. The current management of the DIA would also have to see the wisdom of its independence and need for long-term self-governance, something that the campaign to pass the ten-year millage last year puts into serious question.

I also quote from Abraham Kuyper’s reflections on art at some critical points in the commentary, and it’s worth noting his contention about the independence of art, both in theoretical and practical terms, from dependence on both church and state. He traces historically the reliance of art on ecclesiastical forms, but what he says about the maturation of art applies equally well to reliance on governmental support. “So much of art with its diversity,” writes Kuyper, “could emerge at first like an ivy vine curling around the sacred, and only in a later stage of development grow into an entirely independent plant.” After the Reformation, which in a sense separated church and art, “the arts hardly disappeared from view. Far rather was it the case that art everywhere ensured that henceforth it could lead an independent existence. The outcome has shown the wonderful ways that art has succeeded in this endeavor.”

In this way art does lead an independent existence relative to the institutional forms of church and government. What this means, in part, is that the responsibility of civil society to be the arena in which the arts are cultivated comes to the fore. It is this reality which drives my argument that privatizing the DIA means recognizing “the role that civic institutions, rather than simply government, have as stewards of culture.”