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  1. Wealth
August 6, 2013

With Christie's poised to sell Detroit's collection, we see the triumph of debt over art

By Spear's

The very nature of art condemns it to cuts

This isn’t going to be a hand-wringing post about the crushing of the human spirit as Detroit’s artistic treasures (Whistler Nocturne, van Gogh self-portrait, Tintoretto ceiling) are sold off to plug a tiny hole in its $18 BILLION DEBT, depriving its already poor citizens of free access to great art and the hope and possibilities and genius they embody. It’s too late for that.

(This is a good post from a Detroit newspaper with a gallery of works that local artists will miss if they’re sold or the entire gallery is closed.)

Nor is it a post about how vulture-like Christie’s have seemed, flying out to appraise the works before they were even on the block. They may have been there at the local government’s invitation for all we know, preparing for a sale. (Christie’s have now been officially retained; that’ll be some private view.)

No, this is a post about how the arts are the easiest of targets when it comes to cuts – and it’s a cry for resistance. Everyone suffered in the first round of government austerity – but Arts Council England saw its budget cut by 30 per cent in 2011, and a further 10 per cent this year.

Pictured above: Van Gogh self-portrait currently in the Detroit Institute of Arts

People don’t die because there aren’t museums. Children aren’t malnourished because a van Gogh isn’t down the road. A painting isn’t going to tie itself to the gates and scream as bailiffs try to remove it. The arts can be as vocal as they like in their own defence and all governments hear is blissful silence.

Trying to make the case for the ineffable, inexpressible benefit of a dance company or a restored historic house is impossible: the very nature of art condemns it to cuts. Maybe Picasso should have set some broken bones or Matisse put up shelves for the elderly.

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A numbers games

How can the arts fight back? We are told they have to demonstrate economic value but even that’s not a winner.

As Simon Thurley, the head of English Heritage, says in the next issue of Spear’s, the data-proven value of the arts and heritage is always trumped: ‘[Accounting for heritage] makes no real difference for the very simple reason is that our figures will always be trumped by figures in areas that are politically more sensitive.

‘So, we might say, “Saving an old church is going to cost x amount of money,” and someone else might say, “Well, curing a cancer patient will cost this much,” and you’re defeated immediately. Therefore, you can’t argue on economic grounds.’

Pictured above: Diego Rivera’s mural to industry at the Detroit Institute of Arts

The arts get cut even when it’s not economically sensible: the New Yorker’s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, who initially supported the sale because the proceeds would support those dependent on the state (‘Art will survive. The pensioner will not’), recanted after vocal opposition: ‘I am now persuaded that a sale of the D.I.A.’s art, besides making merely a dent in Detroit’s debt, could not conceivably bring dollar-for-dollar relief to the city’s pensioners.’

Thankfully, great individuals and organisations are ensuring access to art. although it may be sporadic, partial or temporary. Take these things we’ve written about:

> The Contemporary Art Society opened a public space with first-class exhibitions

> A wealth manager gave £15 million to save Spanish Old Masters for the nation

> Ernst & Young are now supporting the Tate

> Private museums are on the rise in Asia

So while I wish this Detroit sale weren’t happening, I’m realistic. Our best hope is that someone philanthropic (salaam aleikum, Qatar) buys the pictures and lets them remain on show. If the government won’t support the arts, someone should.

Read more on art from Spear’s

Read more from Josh Spero

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