Lessons on disposal from the US

Graham Beale, Issue 114/10, p15, 01.10.2014
It was with considerable sadness that I watched Northampton Borough Council consign the Sekhemka Egyptian statue, an extraordinary work of art, to an auction house for sale.

The fact that part of the proceeds of the £15.8m sale will be ringfenced to pay for museum programmes and development is neither here nor there.

Works of art in museum and gallery collections ultimately belong to the public, and those in authority are supposed to be the guardians of this public trust.

The buildings and the programmes exist to protect and elucidate the power and benefits of art, not the other way round. The council’s actions represent a total failure of will and trusteeship.

Over here in the US, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in Michigan has been the centre of considerable attention since the city that nominally owns the art collection filed for bankruptcy last year. Among the creditors are city pension funds.

From the start there was pressure on the DIA to sell a few works of art – $500m was the suggested target. But the public did not swallow the ‘rich museum against the poor pensioners’ line and, in one poll, protecting our collection actually scored higher than helping pensioners. How could this be?

A few years ago we took the opportunity to rethink the relationship between our visitors and the museum.

We set out to create an institution that was focused on the visitor experience and dedicated, in the words of our mission, to making “places where visitors can find personal meaning in art”.

The museum’s transformation gave our general visitors – not just the art historians, connoisseurs and practitioners – the sense that the museum and the art in it belonged to them and that they belonged in the museum.

In 2012, in the face of a national anti-tax mood, a tri-county property tax to support the DIA’s operations was approved by voters. 

This support has stood the museum in good stead during bankruptcy proceedings and the DIA is now united with the bankruptcy officers in a creative plan to raise funds that will prevent penury among pensioners and protect the collection by transferring its ownership to the private charitable entity that has been operating, and paying for, the museum on behalf of the city for the past 16 years.

The art we cherish and safeguard was paid for, directly or indirectly, by the public. It belongs to them. It is not an asset to be disposed of by politicians to help pay municipal bills.

Graham Beale is the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts