Acton Institute Powerblog

Detroit’s Civil Society and the DIA

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Following up on last week’s proposal and discussion about the future of the Detroit Institute of Arts in the midst of the city of Detroit’s ongoing budgetary woes, arts commentator Terry Teachout penned a piece for the WSJ about the need for Detroit’s leaders to step up: “Protecting Detroit’s Artwork Is a Job for Detroit.”

Among other things, Teachout writes, “Any argument to keep Detroit’s masterpieces in Detroit has got to make sense to Detroiters who think that pensions are more important than paintings.” Teachout goes on to explore a couple such arguments, but the most salient point is that Detroiters themselves are the best ones to make such arguments.

The ideal result of all this debate about the DIA would be if “a no-sale consensus emerges among Detroit’s leadership class, and if the smartest and most articulate members of that class can sell it to the public.” My take is slightly different: the “no sale” consensus should really be a “privatize locally” consensus.

I responded with my general agreement with Teachout on Twitter, including the caveat that it is perhaps more important for the leaders of civil society, particularly in the philanthropy world, to find that consensus than it is for the government leaders. To this Teachout writes, “Absolutely. In fact, it’s the civil-society ‘leaders’ whom I have in mind more than the government leaders.”

But if the city government leaders don’t come around, then the prospects for my localized privatization solution for the DIA are grim indeed. The consensus has to cut across the public and private sectors. It also needs to cut across the city’s borders, as one email response to last week’s commentary reminded me, since the DIA is a cultural treasure not only for the city, but indeed for the metro area, and the entire state itself.

Just don’t expect labor leaders to be much help in making the case: “The Van Gogh must go,” said Mark Young, president of the Detroit Lieutenants and Sergeants Association. “We don’t need Monet – we need money.”

But if Young and others like him get their way, maybe all the artwork sold off from the DIA can include the credit, “Imported from Detroit.”


Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.