Service of Art III

April 7th, 2014

Categories: Art, Emerging Artists, Fundraising, Museums, Trophy Art

The subhead in a New York Times op-ed, “Costs, Benefits and Masterpieces,” by Robert H. Frank was: “For Detroit and its endangered art collection, a classic question of economic trade-offs.”

In a nutshell the Cornell economics professor’s point was that a museum, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, could do just as well collecting the less expensive work of emerging artists leaving the mega rich to pay humongous prices for famous paintings and lend them to museums, as necessary, for exhibits. Therefore museums, such as the one in revenue-starved Detroit, could sell its Picassos, Rembrandts, Gauguins and more to better benefit its citizens.

Using “The Wedding Dance” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder as an example, he wrote that Christie’s estimates that the work could bring $200 million, noting that “Once interest rates return to normal levels — say, 6 percent — the forgone interest on that amount would be approximately $12 million a year.”

He concluded: “If billionaires choose to bid up the prices of trophy art, that’s their privilege. And because most of them will die with large fortunes unspent, they can buy what they want without having to buy less of other things they value. But because money for worthy public purposes is chronically in short supply, city officials and true philanthropists must grapple with agonizing trade-offs.

“Yes, communities benefit from famous paintings, but they also benefit from safer roads and better schools.”

I like the idea of identifying talented emerging artists and filling museums with their work yet I see it as a short-term solution. Once the $billions are gone–and they soon will be–how then will the gluttonous city coffers replenish themselves? If a city like Detroit has such great collections, shouldn’t they be a tourist draw?

Perhaps Detroit can generate income by renting the master paintings to billionaires letting them display them in their homes and offices. With the rental money Detroit might make itself conducive to tourism. That’s key. When I used to visit Brooklyn Museum on a weekend some 20 years ago most of the exhibits were echo chambers. Last December, when my client produced the American Fine Craft Show Brooklyn at the museum on a famously snowy weekend, I was amazed by the hoards coming in the doors in spite of the storm.

Your ideas?


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10 Responses to “Service of Art III”

  1. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    My first suggestion would be to replace the board of directors—immediately—and recruit some bold, creative Detroit-area visionaries who (1) know how to fund-raise, and (2) have an awareness that their museum collection is absolutely priceless and sacrosanct.

    Skilled marketing people would be able to come up with museum shows with strong community outreach—as one way to get more of the community to attend the museum and be involved in its activities. Lectures. School tours. Local TV. There are various ways for an institution like this one, with such a distinguished history, to make more and more people aware of its significance and its importance as a community asset.

    An art show that gets media attention may be a costly gamble, but it’s a fairly sure way to bring the museum to people’s attention…and also convince people with money that investing in this institution makes sense in (1) bringing luster to an otherwise ailing metropolis, and (2) illustrating that this museum has bankable ties to the community.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    As I read your comment bells rang all over the place and they all chimed: General Motors.

    If any company needs to do something to dust off its image after the growing debacle over faulty ignition switches and the sluggish way it has responded it’s this one. We bailed out GM and now it’s time for it to go to the head of the line to support others–not just its executives.

    It has dealerships around the country which could promote a special exhibit, conduct drawings for trips to Detroit to visit the GM plant and the museum, the dealerships could support local schools by promoting an art competition with winners invited to visit the museum with GM paying the ticket. And that’s just for starters.

    What a fun and worthwhile project!

  3. Peter C. Said:

    This is a huge, complicated subject, far too vast to be commented upon in a paragraph or two. Consequently, I’ll just ask some questions.

    What is art? Who knows? Given the massive amount of junk that passes for art these days, I guess the answer is whatever anybody wants it to be and is willing to pay for.

    Isn’t art entertainment? If it is, which I think, what business does any government have owning any art, far less tax exempting the people/companies who collect, exhibit, donate the stuff? (True confession: I once bought something with the sole intention of giving it to a museum for a tax deduction big enough to cover its cost and give me a nice profit on the deal.)

    Shouldn’t it be the trustees of the Detroit museum, not the city, who decide to cash in the art? And if not them, the citizens of Detroit?

    I’ve been to many empty but interesting museums in many U.S. cities, including New York (in bad neighborhoods). Given what has happened to Detroit, why does it need museums at all? Who is going to visit the place, and certainly not for cultural reasons?

    Lastly, shouldn’t somebody be thinking about what the people, who gave the stuff to the Detroit museums, had in mind when they made their gifts?

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I hesitated to write about the subject for the reason you state, and yet as I didn’t like much of the solution I read about in the op-ed piece, I did anyway. And I am not the person to have the answers–just some opinions.

    As a New Yorker I am grateful that the city helped support some of the museums I’ve visited as I wouldn’t have seen what I’ve been privileged to enjoy otherwise. If the public is unable to keep open the doors–certainly I don’t have the funds to make a difference–how fortunate we are that the city has done so. There’s no doubt that the city benefits via tourism which, in turn, fills the coffers which allow us all to enjoy the exhibitions and collections in our museums.

    Just as you once bought something for reasons having nothing to do with what you liked about a piece of art, I’m sure that there are some artists who may be talented but who dream up absurd ways to grab the attention of reviewers and the public so as to become rich and famous. The result is quite a bit of Emperor’s New Clothes quality work to which, I assume, you refer. Simultaneously there are wonderful, serious artists creating remarkable work right now.

    The Barnes in Philadelphia was powerless in the face of bigger entitites, such as the Philadelphia Museum, to stay true to the donor’s wishes–in this case Albert C. Barnes’s to maintain his collections and hang them just where he put them in his home in Merion, a Philadelphia suburb. Who can trust anyone not to break the intention of a will? It’s a case of may the smarter lawyer win. Parts of the collection are now at the Philadelphia Museum.

    When you asked why would Detroit need such a museum, I thought what about the child whose school brings him/her to an exhibition? Who knows what such a visit might trigger? Mark Zuckerberg gave the Newark, NJ Schools a $100 million foundation. Weekly we read about 20-30-somethings hitting jackpots as Zuckerberg did. Surely one will reach out to support this once venerable city and its institutions and all its citizens. What’s the point of having all that money if not to spend it?

    I’m more comfortable with Merv’s approach to look for a solution rather than to throw in the towel and give up.

  5. Martha Takayama Said:

    I wholeheartedly agree with everything that Mervyn Kaufman suggests. The most important step towards resurrecting the Detroit Institute of Art is to reshape its Board making it an entity which cherishes the Museum, its art, and the essential function of museums.

    The brilliant scholar and administrator James Cuno , President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust since 2011 considers this to be the preservation of higher culture for the community. The new Board would have to proceed from such a standpoint.

    As for renting parts of the collection, creating reproductions for sale in a tasteful gift shop with a wide price range, those are expedients being used by many museums to better and worse effect. The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has engaged in controversial financial lend-lease programs resulting in complaints about masterworks being unavailable to the viewers in Boston, but everything can be done in moderation.

    Rental of works of modest value to businesses who support the museum for office décor has been a long-standing practice in some museums. However, extended and creative programming, expanding education offerings in as many areas as possible covering the widest of art ranges, rental of the facility for private functions, school participation, film and other festivals related to various holidays, civil, ethnic etc. are also ways in which to engage the community and stimulate revenue.

    Offering reviews by professionals for artists in all areas wishing to have their work seen and evaluated, as well curated contests always entail some type of processing fee, and can stimulate interest and revenue while reinforcing the purpose of a museum. Expansion of tourism is, as Jeanne mentions, absolutely ‘A key” to ameliorating Detroit’s situation.

    It is mandatory to engage in planning with schools and cultural and community organizations within the state and nationally to expand tourism. Involve the Chamber of Commerce, the hospitality industry, the banks, businesses such as GM–and of all sizes–and houses of worship, the communications industries, to make a concerted effort to recreate the image of Detroit. A positive campaign involving beautification, even with contest for public and landscape art might help. The museum and its fellow leading institutions should think of making themselves a magnet for renewal.

  6. ASK Said:

    Very little of Zuckerberg’s money made its way down to the children of Newark it was meant to serve– as the press has pointed out…Apparently much has gone to “studies” of what needs to be done and independent consultants…

    One major contribution or supporter is NOT going to make a difference…a community with a commonality of interests in saving the city might, but don’t look for a solution to extremely knotty problems any time soon…It will take a realistic, no-nonsense, unsentimental approach to save Detroit.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your ideas provide plenty of legitimate and useful ways to remove the museum from life support and at the same time help the city.

    The licensing of images is a terrific idea, not so much for the museum’s store—at least until the tourist part of this challenge is up and running–but to sell to other museums and retailers for their stores.

    I understand from a Brooklyn, NY artist I interviewed last December that Detroit—which is where she was born—is the new Brooklyn and that many artists are going there as the rental prices are right. We know what happened to rentals in SoHo in NYC and in Brooklyn….that’s an important step for the city’s renewal.

    We were going to Chicago on business and in order to be sure to see a blockbuster exhibit at the Art Institute we joined the museum, which as out of towners was not expensive and guaranteed our tickets. Special promotions with airlines and hotels tied into tickets to worldclass exhibits in Detroit– with appropriate advertising and PR–would also help this initiative as would an agressive convention and visitor’s bureau.

    Re. painting lend-lease, I doubt there is a museum that exhibits all of its paintings all the time and there will always be people who complain that they missed seeing one or another painting when there are hundreds of others to view. At any given time there are thousands of works in storage and many on loan to other museums for their exhibits. In the land of the app and website, it would be easy enough to learn which paintings were on loan or being rented to avoid someone traveling to Detroit to see “The Wedding Dance” or to Boston to see Turner’s “Slave Ship” or Monet’s “Grainstack” at sunset hence, no more complaints. Who said life is fair? What fun to have the funds to rent a great painting and wake up to it every day….not everyone does and good for those who do if it keeps open the doors of a beloved museum.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    There are PR agencies that make tons of money by conducting all the marketing tests you can think of that take little effort and come with juicy fees and those that roll up sleeves and get to work getting out the word. Clients that accept the test route are afraid of their shadows. A shame about the Zuckerberg money.

    If Newark and Detroit are blessed with someone like Michael Bloomberg who doesn’t have to worry about his/her next dollar or job, there might be hope. Saving something big, like the venerable museum, could be an important symbol. Somebody has to care and many have to work hard and keep hands out of the till.

  9. Lucrezia Said:

    The paintings are priceless and should not be sold under any circumstances. What would a city do to drag itself out of a hole with no art collection? It would have to look for a solution. That said, there is no reason the pictures should not be put to work by making themselves available for temporary loans to institutions who may be happy (and able) to foot costs. To divest itself of treasures of this magnitude and replace them by what threatens to be works of inferior quality is unthinkable. I don’t live in Detroit, but if I did, this is what I would suggest.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Here here! Priceless says it all. And for a city like Detroit, the collections could be just the yeast on which the city might once again rise.

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