Acton Institute Powerblog

Redeeming the DIA

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Most commentators, apart from Virginia Postrel and the like, seem to think that it would be tragic for the city of Detroit to lose the art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in the city’s bankruptcy proceedings. I agree that liquidating or “monetizing” the collection and shipping the works off to parts unknown like the spare pieces on a totaled car would be tragic.

Diego Rivera - Detroit Industry MuralsBut at the same time, there’s something about the relationship between the DIA collection and the city government (not to be confused with the people of the city itself) that would seem to warrant the city government’s loss of this asset. When you are a bad steward, even what little you have will be taken from you.

Now one could argue about the details of the DIA’s day-to-day operations, the compensation package for its director, and so on. But apart from these details of stewardship of the DIA itself, the real object lesson in bad stewardship has to do with the city government. Rife with structural corruption, cronyism, and incompetence, the city has been unable to provide the basic services and protection that it is responsible for, despite the best efforts of so many individuals working within the city government. So when the city cannot do the primary things it needs to do, it should lose the privilege of overseeing the secondary things, at the very least until it proves itself to be a responsible steward.

In this sense, the public provision of art by a government is a luxury, one that the city of Detroit quite literally can no longer afford. As Abraham Kuyper put it, “A people can live and grow without art, if necessary.” The sensitivity that the loss of such cultural resources would have for the city, however, is what rightly drives the indignation at the prospect of moving the art out of the city. It is encouraging to see people putting money behind their convictions in this way, like the former Wayne State professor who has donated $5 million to save the DIA.

The latest issue of Comment magazine is on the fruitful idea of patronage, and editor Jamie Smith has an editorial a blog post addressing the DIA dilemma, in which he argues “‘Detroit’ is more than its finances (or lack thereof) because cities are more than economic entities. Cities are multifaceted organizations of human social life. There is an economic aspect to any city, to be sure; but a city is not only economic.” But to take that a step further, Detroit is also more than its government, and the conflation of the city itself with the city government is precisely, at least in large part, what has led to the precariousness of the DIA’s situation.

Smith refers to the challenge of “double-patronage,” since much of the DIA was originally sponsored by private money: “Our patronage secured the art originally; now our giving is just securing it … again? It’s a fair question.” It is a fair question, indeed, but in my view it is a question that challenges the original wisdom of such patronage that would pay for such a unique art collection and then entrust it to the city government. Rather than double-patronage, the $500 million that Judge Rosen is seeking to privatize the DIA while keeping it local could be more helpfully be viewed as a kind of redemptive payment, saving the art from the debts the city has otherwise incurred while ensuring that the treasured collection will never again be held as a ransom against governmental malfeasance.

It’s time to privatize the DIA and keep the collection in Detroit, and may God bless the efforts of Judge Rosen and others to do just that.

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. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. 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.


  • Marc Vander Maas

    Thanks for keeping tabs on this situation, Jordan. This has been a really interesting series of posts.

  • James K.A. Smith

    Good thoughts. My blog (not an editorial) didn’t suggest any particular resolution, and I granted the intractability of this problem. Unlike you, I don’t have any sort of principled minimalism about how little a city government should be invested in. Governments are certainly not the only stewards of “the public,” but they are significant ones. But I could also see how something like “redeeming” this patronage could be a constructive response to a tragic situation. My only concern would then be to ensure that they remain in the public trust, and not just at the mercy of the noblesse oblige of some de facto “owners.”

    • Thank you for the correction, I have fixed the reference to your piece in the above. To your latter concern regarding noblesse oblige (which does exist? or not?), would a non-profit chartered to administer the collection explicitly in the public trust be sufficient? That’s precisely what has been proposed.

      • James K.A. Smith

        Seems like a promising avenue to explore. You’ve been following this more closely than I. I just don’t have any principled opposition to a city government owning art for their “public.” So we might agree this is good in this case, but you do so from a principled opposition to city government ownership whereas I do so b/c it’s a good ad hoc response to bad situation.

        • I appreciate the response. I certainly have a prudential objection to the continued ownership by the city government of Detroit of the DIA collection. I also have a principled objection to a view of public art as something that can only be provided by the government.

          I will admit that the “separation of city government and art” formula is more of a rhetorical flourish than a principled agenda for complete and rigid separation. So I’m not advocating closing down or privatizing city museums across the country, especially in places where city governments have been competent stewards of their various responsibilities. Likewise I don’t want the city of Detroit to auction off the Fist or the Spirit of Detroit.

          City governments certainly have within their purview the creation art in city-owned spaces. So I also don’t think the city needs to have blank walls in all its office buildings or simply put up whatever they can get as leftovers from a starving artists’ auction.

          But I want to avoid the simplistic conflation of public art with government art.

          • James K.A. Smith

            We seem to mostly agree, because I never said public art “can only by provided by the government;” ergo, I don’t conflate public art with government art. You have a bit of a tendency to confuse what you think/expect to hear with what I actually say.

          • Since we’re parsing each others’ words so closely, please show me where I say you conflate public art with government art.

            I do say that’s a position I want to avoid. But I don’t recall ever saying that you conflate the two, and I don’t recall intending to make that assertion either. If you can show me where I say that, I’m quite happy to apologize and retract it.

            I had in mind a rather different position, actually, and in fact worried in my published commentary about such a conflation well before you weighed in. So I’m simply reiterating my original concern from July and speaking about my own intentions, not yours.

            I will say here quite clearly that I do think that your analysis in the blog post does not distinguish categories sufficiently to guard against such a conflation, but of course that is not the same thing as making such a conflation.

          • James K.A. Smith

            It seemed like the natural reading of the last line of your prior comment. If that wasn’t being attributed to me, then why pen that last line vis-a-vis my remark?

          • As I said, it was a summative reiteration of the concern that has animated my commentary on this issue the entire time. I did not mean it as an attribution to you.