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Snyder and Orr Suckerpunch the Arts in Michigan

In a nifty move right out of the Reagan Revolution playbook, the governor of Michigan and his hand picked bankruptcy fixer finally revealed their plan for monetizing the art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The plan is brilliant in its simplicity and in its political nuance.

After months of hinting that the art in the museum was “on the table” for a liquidation that would generate cash to offset Detroit’s many debt obligations, the lords of the bankruptcy relented and “saved” the museum. Their idea basically runs like this: Art is worth money (they got an appraisal to prove it). People who like art have money. Thus, why not present the museum with a bill that would equate to the appraised value of its precious art and let the museum tap its rich friends across America for contributions that would pay the tab and keep the paintings on the Institute’s walls.

How perfect! How painless! How noble! This is the ideal “public/private partnership” we are always hearing about! In short, since elites like art and since the common working folk of the city are seeing their pensions cut, why not let the elites pony up for the city and the State in the interest of the “good of the many.” State to the museum: “You ‘Culture Vultures’ go have a bake sale – or whatever you need to do – and bring us back the ransom payment as specified. Thank you.”

The Snyder/Orr plan is the perfect product of the anti-culture, anti-education, anti-intellectual tone of contemporary American political discourse. As an artist and an educator, I recognize (and fear) the messaging in the “museum rescue” scheme that has been put forward in Michigan. My view of the plan contends that it is totally predicated on the belief that the public has no stake whatsoever in the art at the museum – or in the museum, itself, as a “public institution.” This seems curious in light of the fact that the three counties surrounding the museum recently voted in favor of voluntarily taxing themselves to provide substantial, ongoing financial support for the Institute – support that had been systematically withdrawn by several decades of art-hostile governors and legislatures in the state capital.

The political embrace of the arts that fired the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1960s, has dramatically eroded and is presently at a new low. Reagan era antagonism toward public education and the arts now has a permanent face in our contemporary political conversation. “Culture” and the humanities have become the targets of a class envy that has been skillfully manipulated to fuel the anger component of the new American populism. A business driven consumer culture does not need art and there is a concerted effort afoot to rile up Detroit’s public against it. The drumbeat has been incessant: “Art or pensions – but you can’t have both!”

So the idea of “spinning off” the museum to a rich elite that can pamper itself with luxuries and baubles in gold frames is a perfect fix for the Motor City. Curiously, I don’t remember anybody suggesting that because Jay Leno is rich and likes cars, that he (instead of the government) should have bailed out G.M. Oh, yes, I forgot, that was about “jobs.”

The question, “who needs Picasso?” remains unanswered in the newly revealed Detroit bankruptcy plan. But one thing is sure, the governor and his team of practical problem solvers have sent a message that translates directly into: “Let them eat Dancing With The Stars!”

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Michael D. Hall

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