When you sell your soul, you don’t get it back
by Robert Meredith
December 08, 2013 12:00 AM | 1347 views | 2 2 comments | 36 36 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On Tuesday, U.S. Judge Steven Rhodes declared the city of Detroit, $18 billion dollars in debt and unable to repay its creditors, bankrupt. Still to be determined is whether the treasures of the Detroit Institute of Arts will be sold to help pay the bills.

It is thought that $1 billion dollars could be raised through the sale of the art. Christies is currently appraising the collection. Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr said only 500 pieces would be affected. Taking 500 major pieces would destroy any museum in the world.

There are persuasive arguments from all sides. Roughly half of Detroit’s debt is owed to the pension and health care funds of Detroit’s municipal workers. Is it moral to take the pensions of people who have worked their lifetimes expecting retirement benefits and leave a marble palace full of art?

The banks and financial institutions that loaned money to the city knew the risk they were taking; surely they could see the steady loss of industry, lack of jobs, flight of the tax base to the suburbs and the crumbling infrastructure; yet they continued to loan the city money. Should they be repaid for their bad decisions by the sale of the city’s treasures?

Perhaps the people who let their city decline into ruin do not deserve great art. Shouldn’t the art be sold to people who can better appreciate it?

Donors who build art museums and donate paintings do so to create a legacy for their city and to preserve the cultural heritage of our country. These great cultural monuments are the “must see” sites in any city, the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, the Getty in Los Angeles and the Chicago Art Institute. I once flew to Detroit specifically to view a John Singer Sargent exhibition.

These institutions are not piggy banks that can be raided at any excuse or need to pay bills. Their contents do not belong to any one city for any one time, but for all people, for all time. The cities only own them as caretaker.

Selling the contents of the Detroit Art Institute could set a chilling precedent, jeopardizing every museum and donor’s gift. If it could happen in Detroit, it could happen anywhere. Only four decades ago New York City was facing bankruptcy.

Every few weeks, another painting sells for an astronomical sum as the art speculators flaunt their wealth. The Detroit Art Institute is viewed by its creditors as a marble vault filled with money. It is not. It holds the cultural soul of the city. Art is culture. Art represents the past, the present and the future of any civilization.

History and literature tell the story of expedient decisions. Esau sold his birthright as oldest son for a bowl of bean soup. The result was that the Messiah came through the bloodline of his younger twin, Jacob. Faust sold his soul for a hot chick. Decisions have consequences.

Detroit will survive as a city. It just needs a hand up. The ingredients that first made it a fur trading outpost and later the center of automobile manufacturing are still there, chiefly its location on the Detroit River, which links Lake Huron and Lake Erie, giving it access to all the commerce and raw materials of the Midwestern states and Canada.

In the city of Cahors, France, there is a park near the ancient bridge that contains the remnants of a defensive wall. Within the fabric of the wall are sugar-white chunks of marble bearing elaborate carvings. Remnants of a Roman coliseum have been unearthed in the center of the city.

Sometime during its long history, a crisis arose; probably the approach of Viking boats up the river Lot. The residents hastily built a defensive wall with any material at hand, including the stones of their coliseum. They literally destroyed their cultural heritage to solve a momentary crisis. Today, the city is known only for the dark red wine of the region.

When you sell your soul, you don’t get it back.

Robert Meredith is a Cobb County artist with a national following. Last year he celebrated his 50th one-man show in as many years with an exhibition of 56 paintings at the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. He lives in West Cobb with his wife, Brenda. They have four adult children.
Comments
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Wes Boudville
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December 08, 2013
Listen to the author's own words - 'Their contents do not belong to any one city for any one time, but for all people, for all time. The cities only own them as caretaker.'

Yes, agreed. So what if a city has been a bad caretaker? If a museum does not belong to Detroit forever, then surely it or its greatest works can move elsewhere. This will still benefit the entire nation. And specifically it can aid another city's culture.

Robert Meredith
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December 13, 2013
True, but there is a difference between rescuing works of art to preserve them and in selling them to pay the bills. If sold, it will no doubt be at auction and to the highest bidder. Some of the most aggressive players in todays art market are the Arabs, the Russians and the Chinese. It is doubtful that many of Detroit's treasures would end up in American museums. There is no easy or correct answer. Incidentally, some of the great treasures of our National Gallery were sold from the Hermitage Museum by the Russians to raise money to finance the revolution.
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