DIA Art: At Least Kevyn Orr Broadens the Discussion

[Photo illustration by Lauren Ann Davies]

The NAACP makes all kinds of valid points, of course, in noting this week the blatant contradiction among emergency manager proponents who are  balking at the idea that Kevyn Orr might want to sell Detroit Institute of Art artworks to help solve the city's fiscal woes.

But more than just "hypocrisy," the uproar over the idea of dumping the DIA's paintings and sculptures -- said by some to be worth as much as several billion dollars -- to pay down municipal debt also lays bare the disdain and shortsightedness that have coursed through much of the debate over Detroit's economic fate. 

How do you tell a city that has slashed police, fire and EMS resources to stay afloat that you won't tolerate anyone putting a price tag on that Gainsborough you like to visit down on Woodward Avenue? How gallingly callous do you have to be to tell elderly people who walk home at night on poorly lit streets and children who play in unkempt parks that safeguarding a Rodin is more important than safeguarding their lives?

Yet that's essentially what Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, did recently with a bill to prevent the city from selling DIA works in an effort to emerge from its financial emergency. And in what must surely have been meant as yet another middle finger to the lives and well-being of Detroiters, Richardville rationalized his action thusly: "We can't let somebody take our best stuff away."

Never mind that Richardville was among those leading the charge for the imposition of an EM on Detroit. Never mind that he was among those fighting to expand the powers of the EM so that he could explore options just like the one Orr floated about the DIA. Never mind that the Republicans have been trying to strip and sell Detroit's core assets like crackhead scrappers descending on a vacant house. 

Narrow, monochromatic chauvinism

No, the Republican from Monroe suddenly has some very specific ideas about what a city he doesn't live in or care about should and shouldn't be doing to right its financial ship — and not one idea involves inconveniencing him and his art-loving buddies.

Apparently, to Richardville and his ilk, "our best stuff" doesn't include communities with regular police patrols or an adequate number of firefighters. "Our best stuff" isn't in the neighborhood libraries or at the local parks where our families cook out and kids rip and run. Not unlike Sarah Palin's "real America," "our best stuff" is defined solely and wholly by the narrow, monochromatic chauvinism of a small-minded partisan hack.

This is the point at which I think the "hypocrisy" characterizations get fuzzy. Hypocrisy suggests saying one thing and doing another. But in reality, the GOP has been quite clear in its "separate and unequal" approach to crises in select Metro Detroit communities. 

That's why the Republicans shoved an EM law down our throats even after the majority of state voters rejected it. That's why communities of color have been the primary targets for Snyder's emergency manager army. That's why about half of the state's black voters, from Ecorse to Pontiac to Detroit, have lost some or all say in the direction of their school boards and municipal governments. 

That's also why labor unions and working-class people of all colors have been cast as villains, why the governor and his EM are willing to squeeze public services and public servants until they just can't bleed anymore. 

This isn't coincidence. This is well-considered public policy. If it's hypocrisy now, it's been hypocrisy from the beginning.  

Intrinsic Value in Art

Just so we're clear, I don't want to see the DIA (or any other local museums) lose a single item. I agree that there is intrinsic value in art that no price tag can bear out and that, if Detroit is ever to regain world-class status, cultural gems like the DIA will play a key role in its revitalization.

I also don't support the idea of an emergency manager. Orr's appointment represents an end-run around democracy. 

But if his focus on the DIA is any indication, Orr seems to believe that sacrifices for Detroit's turnaround shouldn't be extracted solely from working people, unions, neighborhoods and city services. Undemocratic as I believe the EM post is, Orr at least is giving the appearance of wanting to be fair.

I wasn't asking "why" when I found out about his plan to appraise the DIA's works for potential liquidation, but rather "why it took so long" for anyone in charge to at least raise the specter of slashing more than cops, firefighters and librarians.  

Orr's pronouncement not only spotlighted the hypocrites, but it also offered a stark reminder of just how uncreative, myopic and fearful elected city leadership has been in attempting to address the city's financial plight. 

For years, even as the likelihood of a state takeover loomed, no one from the mayor's office or City Council dared to even whisper about leveraging assets such as city-owned artwork and classic cars. Instead, all we ever got was a steady diet of employee furloughs, shrinking union benefits, threats of payless paydays and shoulder shrugs.

Orr Broadens the Discussion

At the very least, Orr has broadened the discussion.

Robert Bobb

We'll see if that holds. When former DPS emergency financial manager Robert Bobb rode into town a few years ago, he woofed a lot about treating everyone the same, too, about righting the district's fiscal ship, about rooting out corruption big and small, about open and public inquiries into how the schools finances became so decrepit. 

But then he found out about a crappy deal between DPS and real-estate power brokers at Farbman Group that cost the district dearly. Suddenly, Bobb's big public investigation went away, replaced by informal closed-door chit chats. Not unexpectedly, nothing ever came of it.

Bobb learned fast that when it comes to getting to the bottom of who truly screws Detroit and who benefits from it, he was better off going after lunch aides pilfering petty cash than taking on rich and connected hustlers who regularly siphon millions from this town's coffers. (More "consultants," anyone?)

We'll see if the city's emergency manager learns the same lesson.

For now, Orr seems steadfast in his desire to at least put Detroit museums' collections on the table for discussion. He appears to understand that, as important as many of these pieces may be, it is beyond inhumane to ask working-class Detroiters to keep dying in the streets for lack of police presence merely because a politician from Monroe wants the city to stay in the art business.

Still, as DIA defenders explain, the emergency manager certainly should see more than just a price tag when he considers the DIA's works. Cultural expressions shouldn't be reduced to monetary value, but should be regarded as part of a larger public interest that enriches and engages all of us, irrespective of race or class or education.

Of course, the same used to be said about democracy -- and the state didn't seem to have any problem with dumping that either.

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