Guest commentary: Detroit’s art treasures represent legacy we must protect

By Maud Lyon/CultureSource

For 128 years, men and women have given works of art to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Why would people give the art they have collected and treasured to a publicly owned collection, or give money to buy art?  Because they loved Detroit.  Building a magnificent public collection is a way to give back to the community, to share the beauty, to ensure that these works of art will be preserved for generations hence to enjoy.  The collection is the museum’s mission, the heart of why the museum exists.

The DIA’s collection is a public trust.  Giving it to the city was a way that donors could ensure that it would remain, forever, for the public to enjoy.  It never entered their minds that an art collection could end up as collateral for municipal debts.

A city is not a corporation and not just a workplace – people live in cities.  We identify ourselves with cities.  Our assets - museums, concert halls, parks, architecture and public spaces – attract new residents, and make Detroit special and uniquely ours.

The idea of selling a museum’s collection to pay off municipal debts has national ramifications.  It is not only the DIA; the city also owns the historical objects of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Detroit Historical Museum, and the animals at the Detroit Zoo.  Every municipally owned cultural asset in the country is threatened by such a precedent.

When New York City went through a fiscal crisis in the 1970s, no one suggested selling off the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some things are unthinkable – and wrong.

Detroit’s emergency manager has the difficult task of finding a solution to intractable financial realities. We all need to support his efforts and sacrifices that need to be made. But selling our collective birthright, our cultural heritage, is not one of them.

When Detroit is firmly on a course towards fiscal solvency and renewal, we need to have the bones in place to rebuild the public body, our sense of place and community. Detroit has to be a place where people want to be, to live, work, play and visit.

The measure of success in restructuring Detroit is not just a financial balance sheet.  In the end, it is not the assets we give up that matter, it is the assets that we choose to keep.  We will still be here, the people of Detroit and the region.  Our legacy as a community is the culture and heritage that we share.

That is our gift to each other, and to generations to come.

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Margaret Thomas
Thu, 06/20/2013 - 4:40pm
I couldn't agree more! When I lived in Detroit as a young single woman, I spent a lot of Sundays at the DIA. Later on, when we had children and lived in Livonia, we took them their regularly as part of their education. It is a beautiful facility and along with the Detroit Public Main Library building has been considered a statewide resource. The many donors in the early days, along with more recent ones such as former Gov. Williams, certainly never thought their gifts would be sold off like so much garbage. Hands off!