Exclusive: Virginia Postrel Replies To DIA Column Critics

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National culture columnist Virginia Postrel isn't surprised that her sharp language about the Detroit Institute of Arts generates strong blowback via email, social media and comments under the Bloomberg View commentary.

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"I grew up in the art-deprived South," Virginia Postrel tells Deadline Detroit.

"The local reaction was predictable," she tells Deadline Detroit in an online interview about responses to the essay posted Thursday night.

"Some people love the art and want to keep it in town. Others just hate to hear outsiders say that the city is in decline -- an unarguable truth -- instead of the fashionable cheerleading expected of outside journalists these days. And a lot of people have a big chip on their shoulders."  

Postrel, a 53-year-old Los Angeles author and biweekly Bloomberg columnist for two years, suggests negotiated sales of of DIA-owned works to "well-endowed" U.S. museums because "great artworks shouldn’t be held hostage by a relatively unpopular museum in a declining region."

In a 900-word email Friday afternoon, the writer clarifies her views, the context behind them and the reason for "strong language in my article."   

The response, sent less than two hours after receiving four questions, acknowledges that "I was a little ticked off" about "the prevailing attitude among the museum establishment, mostly outside Detroit . . . that it's an offense against ethics and high culture for a museum ever to sell an art work for any purpose other than the acquisition or maintenance of more art."

Amid her detailed explanations, Postrel splashes fresh kerosene on the firestorm she ignited.

If I'd wanted to be really mean I could have compared the endowments of the DIA and, say, the Cleveland Museum of Art as an indicator of the shallowness of local support historically.

I also didn't mention that Detroit also lacks an appeal to tourists, which further limits the potential audience for the museum's works.

'The Art-Deprived South'

Other comments are softer-edged and focus on "the shortage of great art outside the U.S. cities that benefited from the first industrial boom."

Detroit's need for cash to reduce its debts, in her view, creates a rare chance to redistribute Old World masterpieces -- "a side of the story that everyone else ignored."

The article was inspired by reading too many people getting in a high moral dudgeon at the idea that art might ever flow from old, cash-poor places to younger, growing, prosperous places -- as if the art hadn't gotten there that way in the first place. I grew up in the art-deprived South. Although I only mentioned Atlanta briefly, the High Museum was prominent in my thoughts, as was the new Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. . . .

if your city happens to have grown recently, rather than a long time ago, you're never going to have a shot at the best older works. I understand why local residents want to keep the art, but before they get self-righteous and populist, they should realize that they are the old rich looking down on Johnny-come-lately. The museum got that art by taking advantage of Europeans (my focus in the piece) who needed cash, just as Detroit needs it now. . . .

I wanted to remind readers that people in younger cities count too, and that a fiscal necessity for Detroit might produce a cultural good.

Postrel adds "one technical point that doesn't address any of your questions, but is responsive to the Freep piece" -- referring  to a blog post by editorial writer Nancy Kaffer. 

When I discussed selling pieces from the collection, I was envisioning such a sale as part of current negotiations, not as liquidations in bankruptcy. That's why I suggested that such sales could be structured to limit them to other public institutions rather than the highest bidder. Creditors would, of course, have to agree to such a limitation.

She Hasn't Seen DIA

Postrel says she has been in Detroit, though not in its art museum.

I'm sure I would love the museum. It is a treasure, and I can completely understand why local residents want to preserve it intact. . . .

I am NOT saying that Detroit doesn't "deserve" to have a first-class art museum, assuming it can support one and would rather have art and cut back elsewhere. I AM disputing the common argument that Detroit has a special moral claim to the art -- that it "belongs in Detroit" -- just because the DIA happened to buy it first.      

Postrel is a former Wall Street Journal "Commerce & Culture" columnist and Reason magazine editor. She says Thursday's piece brought "a few extremely thoughtful emails" and more than a few that weren't. She shared a vile example.

Beyond the financial clouds over Detroit and its art treasures, as well as the debate she's now part of, Postrel sees a potential bright spot.

I suspect that the controversy . . . is reminding people not to take [the DIA] for granted, as locals everywhere tend to do with their museums.

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Young visitors in the museum's iconic Rivera Court. [Photo from Detroit Institute of Arts]

 

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