Many of us at the Walker are disappointed by Monday’s news that Kevyn Orr, emergency manager for the city of Detroit, has contracted with the auction house Christie’s to assess the value of artworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection that might be sold to settle the city’s municipal debts. While such a sale is not inevitable, Orr has said he wants all options “on the table” in dealing with Detroit’s bankruptcy. We’re in agreement with the American Association of Art Museum Directors — of which Walker executive director Olga Viso is a member — in opposing such a course of action. “A museum’s collection is held in public trust for current and future generations,” AAMD said in a recent statement. “This is a bedrock principle of the Association of Art Museum Directors and of the museum field as a whole. Art collections are vitally important cultural and educational resources that should never be treated as disposable assets to be liquidated, even in times of economic distress.”
Today we join with more than a dozen art websites in observing A Day for Detroit, spearheaded by Modern Art Notes’ Tyler Green as a way to showcase works in the DIA’s collection that could be threatened by such a sale. Below, favorite DIA artworks as selected by Walker staff, along with a few reflections on the art and the institution that’s given it a home.
“As a prescient City of Detroit purchase, van Gogh’s self-portrait would be among the most vulnerable masterpieces should any sale move forward,” says Andrew Blauvelt, the Walker’s design curator and Chief of Communications and Audience Engagement. “It is one of just a handful of van Gogh’s self-portraits that the public can see in the United States, which, if sold, would likely enter a private collection. One more transfer of wealth from a public trust to private hands.”
Associate registrar Pamela Caserta says a different van Gogh — The Diggers from 1889 — as her favorite piece in the DIA collection. She writes:
“The Detroit Institute of Arts is energized, lively, and essential. The arts could be Detroit’s saving grace, but not if the state sells away one of the city’s most impressive traits. To dismantle Detroit’s most prized collection would be a disservice, not only to the people who live an love Detroit, but to the future of its position as a cultural center, and to the international communities public access to important masterworks. Detroit is already attracting artists who are working to transform its terrain, perhaps around ideas like urban farming, clean energy, and creative expression.”
“It’s hard to select just one favorite in the DIA collection, but I’m going old school by Walker standards with John Singer Sargent’s Mosquito Nets. Sargent’s portrait—of what its provenance suggests may be his sisters Emily and Violet—feels a little like Downton Abbey crossed with Minnesota summer,” says Robin Dowden, director of New Media Initiatives.
Scott Lewis, supervisor of the Walker’s frame shop, has deep ties to Michigan: He grew up in Jackson, went to college near Pontiac, and lived in Detroit for six years, where he and his wife had their first daughter. A great fan of the DIA collection, he points to two “stunners”: Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi and The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. But his favorite painting is The Nut Gatherers by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. “I would make it a point to visit the work every time I went to the DIA, even if for a minute,” he says. “For a long while it hung beside the Farnsworth Entrance beside the Visitor Services desk, a testament to its popularity. Many think the work of Bouguereau is sentimental, but perhaps that’s why I like it. I liked the innocence of the subjects, the brush work, the color and shading – it’s a work of real craft. Later, my wife and I produced two daughters: one blonde and one dark haired. I’ve felt that The Nut Gatherers was a window to my future.” He notes that his daughters gave him a Father’s Day gift years ago: a photo of the two of them reenacting the image.
Mia Lopez, a curatorial fellow for Visual Arts, often visits family in Detroit. “Whenever we visit, my mother and I love to stop by the DIA. She enjoys photorealism and had an early influence on my taste: Richard Estes is someone we both appreciate.”
“I enjoy the opposing sensations of getting lost and grounded in the Rothstein photograph,” says Walker photographer Gene Pittman. “The persistence of the subjects to continue on their path in this storm feels like a portrait of Detroit.”
Pittman offers a second pick, from the DIA’s extensive collection of objects and ephemera related to the performing arts. “I want to photograph this face and listen to his story,” he explains. “I want my son to see this puppet and tell me what he is saying.”
“When I finally saw Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold in person last year, I was literally left breathless by its beauty,” shares Sarah Schultz, the Walker’s director of Education and curator of public practice. “That memory will never leave me.”
“A beautiful example of John Sloan’s work which captures the street life of New York,” says archivist Jill Vuchetich of her pick. “The work was purchased for DIA directly from the artist in 1924! That’s a wonderful legacy and would be a great loss to DIA.”
“Diego Rivera’s stunning Detroit Industry Murals, painted on the north and south walls of the museum, are one of the unquestioned masterpieces at the DIA, that virtually no other US museum can boast,” says Olga Viso, Walker executive director. “Depicting laborers working at the city’s Ford Motor Company River Rouge Plant in the 1930s, Rivera saw and painted the significance of Detroit as a world city. His vision of Detroit in the early 20th century provides not only an important historical record of the city’s past achievements that is paramount to preserve, but also offers an important touchstone from which to consider and imagine its future.”
What are your favorite works from the DIA collection? Share your thoughts in comments, and please consider supporting this valuable cultural institution however you’re able.