Selling the walls to fix the roof: Detroit’s bankruptcy and the DIA

Stories about selling works owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts in order to pay off the bankrupt city’s creditors have been so numerous over the last few months that there isn’t any point linking to one here. You’ve probably heard the tale of woe. Because some of the art was purchased with city funds, and the museum is controlled by the city, the artwork has been ruled fair game in Detroit’s bankruptcy. (So, it seems, are the quite modest pensions of city employees, many of whom receive no social security, and who did nothing to cause this bankruptcy. My comments are about the art, not about the wisdom or morality of various proposed solutions, but there is a lot of misinformation out there about just what is at stake for pensioners, so here’s a link on that topic.)

Museums generally adhere to a simple ethical standard: don’t sell the art to fix the roof. Instead of art, it could be classic cars, giraffes, daguerreotypes, or pot shards—but the principle is the same: if you sell the art to fix the roof, there is no need for a roof because there is no art to protect, no reason for people to visit, and no incentive for donors to give the museum anything else. Ever.

Bill Bynum & Co. at the DIA's Rivera Court, 2011. (c) Mike Halcala

Bill Bynum & Co. at the DIA’s Rivera Court, 2011.

Detroit’s creditors have indicated that they think the art is non-essential to city functions. (Interestingly, no one has mentioned the giraffes owned by the Detroit Zoo.) But at least one work defies that view—Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” frescoes in the DIA’S great court. The Rivera court is the scene of popular weekly music events, part of the DIA’s “Friday Night Live!” which includes art workshops, gallery drawing, and guided tours. My band played there to a packed house in 2011, and it was the most memorable show I’ve played in 35 years of gigs.

These huge and wonderfully detailed murals are conceptually and physically part of Detroit: inspired by the huge Ford Rouge industrial complex, commissioned by Edsel Ford, and painted on wet plaster so they’re literally part of the DIA’s walls.

Any collector who bought it would have to move into the building to enjoy it (yes, technically they could be separated from the structure but you’d have to re-create the entire room to complete the work as it was). Forcing a rich collector to go to Detroit would be a fitting turn of fate—but why would anyone want to gaze daily on this heroic depiction of Detroit’s auto industry if he didn’t love and appreciate Detroit? And if the buyer loved Detroit so much, why would she want to bleed one of its cultural arteries?

Art appreciation

Art appreciation between sets.

Many works of art at the DIA—including “Detroit Industry”—were given to the people of Detroit as a source of inspiration, solace, hope, and pride—not as a monetary asset to hide away in a vault to be raided on a rainy day. There are several efforts underway to find a way out of this fix and leave the DIA intact. I hope one of them will succeed.

I doubt that that anyone making decisions for Detroit at this dark moment is listening—but just in case: please don’t sell the people’s art to fix Detroit’s roof. A city with no cultural assets is a poor city indeed.

At least they can’t sell the music.

A fist-bump with Henry Ford

A fist-bump with Henry Ford. (All photos (c) Michael Hacala)

ET and Me

My band played at Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop in Nashville recently. It’s part museum, part record store, part music venue, and all real. It’s one of those rare places that evokes the presence of the past with no pretense or self-consciousness. As we were setting up, our bass player needed to elevate his small amp. We started to hand him an old wooden soda box—the type that little bottles of Coke were once shipped in. The sound man stopped us. “That’s the box Loretta Lynn stood on when she sang here! She was so short the folks in the back couldn’t see her.”

If the place were a museum, that box would be an artifact in a case with a label. Here, the whole building and everything in it—the decor, the memorabilia, the staff, the shows, and the stories—is a living artifact.

It’s the continuity of purpose, I think, that keeps the record shop from being touristy. The stage is the same one Ernest Tubb played on when he opened the shop in 1947. The Midnite Jamboree radio show that he started is still broadcast every Saturday night at midnight, right after the Grand Ol’ Opry. Traveling bands and local legends play here often. People just crowd in off the street when the music starts, standing around the record (now CD) bins–no chairs, no drinks, no cover.

I wonder what will happen to the store if and when music recordings leave the physical realm for good. They sell shirts and books and trinkets too. But it wouldn’t be much of a record store without recordings.

As we were packing up and the store was shutting down, the sound man told us the place was once a Civil War era hospital. He said they’ve heard liquid splashing, as if from the second floor windows to the street below, when no one was upstairs. Footfalls on the old wooden floorboards. Sawing sounds.

I’m not sure about ghosts. But even a confirmed skeptic like me might be converted to a believer. Just before I left the stage, I swear I saw ET.