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Barbarians at the Gates of the DIA

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Visigoths sack RomeThe travails of Detroit’s bankruptcy and the implications for the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) continue to garner speculation about the place of art in society and the value of the DIA to the city, both now and in the future.

Emergency manager Kevin Orr has “formally engaged Christie’s to appraise a portion of the city-owned multibillion dollar collection at the DIA.” John Fund at NRO has advised that even a limited number of paintings could be sold, keeping the remainder of the collection intact. This would allow for a reformation of the institution itself, “to make the art in the DIA more relevant to the people who actually live near it.”

Meanwhile, Graham Beal, the director of the DIA, plays a dangerous game of brinksmanship in the media. By Beal’s account, any change to the DIA would result in the shuttering of the institution: “If works of art are sold by anybody, that breaks the operating agreement — then that money ceases to come from the three counties, then the DIA will effectively be closed down.” Such claims continue to be made despite the real danger of liquidation by order of a federal judge and regardless of the realities of the institution’s operating budget. For fiscal year 2011, the DIA had an operating excess of nearly $22 million.

But Beal doesn’t seem inclined to give any quarter to talk about changes to the DIA. Thus he’s called suggestions like mine to “privatize” the DIA “a bit of a fairy tale.” But if anyone is living in a fantasy land, it’s those who think the DIA will be immune to the political turmoil surrounding Detroit. Rather than galvanizing around efforts to save the DIA, political and civic leaders in Detroit seem increasingly intent on looting the collection: “The Van Gogh must go,” said Mark Young, president of the Detroit Lieutenants and Sergeants Association. “We don’t need Monet – we need money.” The combined interests of the city’s creditors and pensioners might just be enough to sink the DIA. As Philip Terzian writes, “the financial claims of creditors might well have greater weight than the principle of a distinguished art collection in Motown.”

Barbarians are at the gates of the DIA, and the director fiddles. The best thing for a thriving DIA would be to become fully independent, but by all accounts Beal is uninterested in pursuing such options. Having gained a spot at the public trough, the DIA seems loathe to give it up, even if it means endangering the future of the institution.

First they came for the Picasso. Then they came for the Van Gogh. Then they came for the Rivera…

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.

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