x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

What price the value of art?

Speculation followed that works by Whistler, Van Gogh, Bellini, Rodin, Degas and Matisse might follow the mass exodus of 200,000 citizens, and be sold to help pay for prosaic essentials such as Detroit's police officers' pensions.

Cross the threshold of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), beneath the words "Dedicated by the people of Detroit for the knowledge and enjoyment of art", and you'll come face-to-face with a remarkable statement. Painted by the visionary Mexican muralist between 1932 and 1933, Diego Riviera's heroic industry frescos were commissioned by Ford Motor Company as a paean to the glory of labour, the city, its workers and industries; however, the vision and the city they depict are long gone. The manufacturing industry that once breathed life into the sprawling 357-square-kilometre city, home to 1.8 million people at its peak in 1950, is in ruins and empty factories lie scattered along with 80,000 empty homes.

The two worlds of Detroit's past and present collided most recently when Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager appointed by the state of Michigan with sweeping powers to either restructure the city's US$17 billion debts or manage the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history, asked for the DIA's collection to be valued. Speculation followed that works by Whistler, Van Gogh, Bellini, Rodin, Degas and Matisse might follow the mass exodus of 200,000 citizens, and be sold to help pay for prosaic essentials such as police officers' pensions.

Museum-goers breathed a sigh of relief when Michigan's attorney general, Bill Schuette, gave his formal legal opinion on any potential sale: "The art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts is held by the city of Detroit in charitable trust for the people of Michigan, and no piece in the collection can thus be sold, conveyed or transferred to satisfy city debts or obligations." That the graceful Beaux Arts style building, property and collection of the DIA is owned lock-stock by the City of Detroit suggests that lawyers might yet argue the case.

Watching the story unfold from downtown Abu Dhabi, a short drive from Saadiyat and a multi-billion-dollar national museums project that requires the acquisition of a world-class art collection, is peculiar indeed. Once completed, Zayed National Museum, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Performing Arts Centre will form an impressive cluster of museums bringing more tourists and foreign investment, and shaping the emirate's future according to established models of economic development.

But where does all this leave Motor City, last century's model for the city of the future? A former economic powerhouse that no longer makes economic sense: its population unable to support its urban sprawl; its tax base too small to pay for public services; and a complex web of debt likely impossible to restructure.

The answer lies perhaps in the resilience of Detroiters, who have dug in when the worst of a global financial crisis compounded the woes of a city already in disasterous decline. A few of them can be seen lip-synching in the music video for We Almost Lost Detroit re-recorded for a new generation by local indie band Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr in 2011. The words of Gil Scott-Heron's 1977 anthem about another crisis in the Detroit's history - a partial nuclear meltdown at a nearby power station in 1966 - seem strangely apt: "It stands out on the highway, like a creature from another time … No one stopped to think about the people or how they would survive and we almost lost Detroit this time …" In Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr's version, these lines are delivered by workers and artists busy making ends meet in Downtown and Midtown Detroit, a nucleus of activity, where start-ups and private investment are making the city centre buzz again.

That it's possible to live in Detroit for $150 a month, an affordable price tag for the most desperate of struggling artists, suggests that wherever the treasures of the DIA eventually reside, the arts will continue to play a vital role in documenting the city's life.