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)

What would Steve Jobs do?

I read a piece in the San Jose Mercury News yesterday about the possibility of Steve Jobs’ childhood home becoming an historic site. It was posted in a LinkedIn group, “The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums,” asking members what they’d do with it.

While I’m not sure what I’d do with it were I the director, I love the idea of preserving it. Few middle class mid-century suburban homes have ever been preserved anywhere, and this one is a fascinating mix of ordinary domestic and revolutionary industrial (the first 50 Apple I computers were built there).

But would geeks (and I’m a little geeky) flock to mecca, or be happy with a YouTube tour shot on an iPhone? Do the docents have to be conversant in BASIC? Might Woz come back as a historic furnishings consultant? Would the historic site be able to use historic versions of the Apple logo without getting sued? And could its web sit be anything less than a stellar example of functionality and design?

I can already hear people saying “it’s too soon!” After all, Jobs died only a couple of years ago. But there is no time like the present.

A few months ago, I was driving to a midtown Detroit hospital and came upon a small, white, suburban style ranch house. In the middle of Detroit! Anywhere else I’d never have noticed it, but a block off Woodward Avenue, it kinda stood out. It seemed unimaginable that anyone would build a house like that there. Or at least no one ever had, which led my mind to many other questions about housing and culture and cities and suburbs and green and paved and sameness and difference and black and white.

Which, I soon discovered, is kind of the point. The house isn’t the start of some new urban renewal subdivision. It’s art. Or a mobile community center. Or both. Called “Mobile Homestead,” it’s the last work of art by Mike Kelley, who committed suicide recently at age 57. So yes, not only is there no time like the present; there is no time but the present.

Detroit already has its share of historic homes, but none of them mobile until now. In fact it’s made a cottage industry (pun intended) of Henry Ford family houses. That trend was started by Henry Ford himself when he had his boyhood farmhouse moved a few miles to Greenfield Village, his new outdoor museum. At the time, 19th-century farmhouses were nothing special. Lots of people had grown up in them. But Ford knew exactly what he wanted, and had the place fixed up just the way he wanted people to think he remembered it. (Yes, you read that right.)

Which leads back to the original question, WWSJD? Would he want anybody with ten bucks to be able to see what posters he had on his bedroom wall and what brand of toothpaste he used?  I’m still not sure, but if I get to lead the brainstorming session to figure out what to do with that house, I’ll project two words on the wall to get us started: Think Different.

Thoughts on Henry Ford at 150

Are you Henry Ford Curious? I recently finished working on a  web site, www.henryford150.com, that I hope will provide some amusement, verify some facts, bust some myths and generally prove useful for visitors to the Detroit area. It features an interactive timeline of Henry Ford’s life (and a few key events after his death). Each of the approximately 100 entries has two or three sentences  and an historical photo. We couldn’t go much more than 100 entries without it becoming slow and cumbersome, or without missing our schedule and budget targets!

It was a quick turn-around project—I met the web designers/coders (Driven Solutions of Ferndale and BizNet of Wixom) on November 5 and the site went live December 11. In about six weeks I had to research and write it, select photos, give feedback on design and functionality, plus do organizational tasks such as uploading all those photos. Luckily I’ve done a lot of Ford-related projects in my career, so my office already looked like a Ford archive. (It now it looks like a Ford archive after an explosion!) It also helped that the main repository of photos, The Henry Ford, was a partner in the project and provided special access for me to select photos as well as expedited turnaround.

The web site is a partnership of several area museums, historic sites, and businesses, championed and spearheaded by MotorCities National Heritage Area, part of the National Park Service.

HF150 logo

It’s been interesting to see the responses to the timeline both before and after it went live. I thought the biggest issues prior to the site going live would be reviews and approvals, in particular how many and which negative things we could/should include. The usual suspects are Ford’s antisemitism, his efforts to prevent his plants from being unionized, and his strained relationship with his son, Edsel, and his increasing rigidity and erratic behavior as he grew old and started having strokes.

But there was none of the pushback I expected, I think because as the years go on and more research is done and more consequences unfold, even fans of Henry Ford have come to accept the facts and learn from the bad as well as the good. A couple of experts who are members of the Henry Ford Heritage Association reviewed the draft, and answered the questions that inevitably arise when even good historical sources are incomplete or contradictory. They and the MotorCities staff were the only people who reviewed it prior to the site going live. This was not History By Committee. The HFHA was—and is always—emphatic about not sugarcoating the story, as is MotorCities.

The biggest issue we had to resolve before going live was whether I could refer to him as just “Henry.” I’ve dealt with this on other projects. Some people think we should always call him either “Henry Ford” or “Mr. Ford,” usually rationalized by the fact that after a certain point early in his career no one called him Henry, always “Mr. Ford.” And I always argue that a) we are not in his presence, b) we don’t want to appear to be deferential to him, and c) we want the text to be inviting and lively, not stiff and formal. Then there are the purely writerly objections about avoiding repetition (complicated by the fact that using “Ford” alone is problematic because it’s also the name of the company), as well as historical objections such as the fact that his mother didn’t call him “Mr. Ford” when he was a boy.

As history, my approach to the timeline was summarized in the initial statement—that the Model T was like a pebble dropped in a still pond, the ever-expanding ripples still washing around us today. The Model T is the key to it all. If it weren’t for that car, so remarkably fit to the conditions and the market of its day, none of Henry Ford’s quirks, interests, prejudices, innovations, or charities would matter.

I approached each timeline entry as its own pebble. There are a few exceptions, but in most entries I didn’t explicitly state what that ripple effect was, instead leaving that to be picked up in later timeline entries, or sometimes assuming that the reader will either know, intuit, or make an effort to learn more. A timeline can’t accomplish everything. I’m hoping we can add bibliography to the site so it’s easier for people to follow up and avoid some of the dreck that’s out there.

Responses to the content have been interesting. Someone said it needed more about Albert Kahn, the union issues, and Ford’s poor relationship with Edsel. My opinion is that we treated the union issues pretty thoroughly, including the Hunger March, the Battle of the Overpass, and the ultimate resolution to the issue. Albert Kahn, the architect of many of the Ford factories and Edsel and Eleanor Ford’s home, is mentioned twice, but this is not a history of Albert Kahn. I do agree that the first mention of him should make some reference to Kahn’s body of work for Ford, and I’ll see if I can get it changed. In terms of the relationship with Edsel, we mention it once directly and several times indirectly, and we also reveal the power struggle that occurred after Edesl’s death as the young Henry Ford II tried to gain control.

A couple of my Jewish friends had the shuddering reaction to his name that is understandable given the platform and endorsement Ford provided for antisemitic propaganda. Like many Midwesterners of his generation with the anxieties and prejudices of the era, he was predisposed—even eager—to believe a false document, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, originally created in Russia in the 1890s, then debunked, then revived through translations and distribution in America and other countries. Unlike other Midwesterners, Ford owned a printing press. He also had a weekly newspaper, an editor, writers and ghostwriters, and—after the paper nearly failed—an enormous subscriber base composed of Model T buyers. (His dealers were told to include a subscription with every purchase.)

Today falsehoods can spread much more easily and cheaply via the internet, but even today untruths and conspiracy theories are given more credence when they are repeated by and incorporated into the “reporting” of a trusted person or source. Ford was a hero to many workers in the ‘teens. When a ghostwritten pamphlet called “The International Jew” appeared under Ford’s name, many people believed it because it had his name on it. Although Ford awkwardly apologized in 1927 and tried to destroy as many copies as he could, the pamphlet and its hateful contents had taken on a life of its own. It was later used by Hitler to further his own horrendous agenda. (Read Neil Baldwin’s book Henry Ford and the Jews for a full account.)

But just as we must deal in facts about what Ford did do, the same is true for what he didn’t do.

  • I have a friend who swears there is a photo of Henry Ford shaking hands with Hitler. There is not. They never met. There is, however, a photo of the German consuls of Cleveland and Detroit presenting the Grand Cross of the German Eagle to Ford in 1938. Hitler awarded it to Henry Ford for his pioneering work “in making autos available to the masses.” (Yes, the cross and sash still exist. I saw them and held them years ago when I worked at The Henry Ford. Powerful stuff.)
  • Henry Ford didn’t personally write the articles appearing under his name. He had a sixth-grade education, and was a terrible writer. Many of the sayings and quotations attributed to him have been edited to be more pithy and appealing.  That’s not to say he didn’t express those thoughts. Similarly, he definitely set the tone and direction for many of the antisemitic articles. But as much as he initiated and fostered these things himself, he was equally used by others with more aggressive and radical agendas.
  • One colleague relayed a “known fact” among pro-hemp enthusiasts that Ford had made a car out of hemp. I admit I had never heard that before. This one has a kernel of truth in it, but not nearly as large a kernel as the hempsters like to claim. Ford chemists worked on plastics that included soybeans and other farm products, and Henry Ford had an experimental car created with plastic body panels. According to contemporary newspaper reports, at least one of his experimental plastics contained a very small percentage of hemp. Henry Ford produced soy-based parts for production cars in addition to his experiments—horn buttons, handles, knobs, and distributor housings among them.
  • Somebody also claimed that Henry Ford’s early cars could run on any combustible fuel: gasoline, diesel, or kerosene. That is not true, at least not unmodified production Ford cars. Gasoline and diesel engines work differently because the fuels have different flash points. You can’t just substitute one fuel for the other without either making modifications, or having an engine specifically designed for multiple fuels, and Henry Ford didn’t make such engines. But Ford did try building an electric car in conjunction with Edison, who was doing extensive battery research. It didn’t go anywhere (pun intended).

Wow, this went on waaaay too long. I hope you check out the web site. Bye for now!