Here’s the key passage in Mark Stryker’s Detroit Free Press story on yesterday’s news about the future of the Detroit Institute of Arts:
[City manager Kevyn] Orr made clear that whatever the ultimate value, DIA art remains on the table. He said that he expects the DIA to contribute revenue to the restructuring plan by monetizing the art in some way, and he has not ruled out the possibility of selling works. Asked directly whether the DIA was included in his working draft of his plan Orr said: “We’d like to find a way to monetize the DIA.”
I think that’s a real problem. Orr is apparently none-to-clear on what a mission-oriented, non-profit, educational institution is or how it is supposed to function.
Obviously Orr is not suggesting the usual, commonly accepted, entirely appropriate loan arrangement by which the Metropolitan or some other museum (or casino gallery, in the infamous case of the MFA Boston) covers basic costs associated with a loan, such as handling, shipping and insurance. Orr wants to monetize art at the DIA, perhaps by renting out it under an agreement by which profit is the primary motive, the same way the Baltimore Museum of Art has shamefully sent much of its collection to Indianapolis (and then to Minneapolis).
Orr didn’t pull this latest idea out of thin air, he got it from art museums themselves, and especially from the DIA, which most recently rented out much of its Dutch collection. He also got the idea from the Baltimore Museum of Art, from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and from every other museum that has monetized its collection by renting out art. Sadly, predictably, one of the worst practices of American art museums — the monetization of explicitly de-monetized cultural objects — is coming back to bite them.
How could this happen? Doesn’t the museum sector have some kind of rule or guideline that bars this kind of behavior? Yes, in fact, it does. From the Association of Art Museum Directors’ guidelines:
Museums rely on one another for loans to exhibitions, and a spirit of cooperation and collegiality should inform decisions relative to such loans and the setting of charges and fees. In any decision about a proposed loan from a collection, however, the protection of the work of art, the intellectual merit, and the educational benefits must be primary considerations.
AAMD’s language is strikingly clear: “intellectual merit, and the educational benefits must be primary considerations” under which art is sent to another institution, not profit. (Not only do art museums routinely violate this guideline by renting out their art, but they also violate it via the loaning of artworks to commercial galleries, where the ‘primary consideration’ is to make the art for sale look most saleable.) For years AAMD has routinely and wrongly looked the other way as its members opened the door that Orr is trying to drive through.
As a result, when it comes to Orr’s latest threat, the DIA and its museum brethren have only themselves to blame. The sad situation in Detroit gives AAMD the opportunity to try to fix a problem it has helped create.