Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Coaccession Enthusiast's View

Mark White reconceives  Laura Berman's column
"Theorist suggests DIA riches will fix city"
original posted at Detroit News, DECEMBER 4, 2012 AT 10:10 AM
reconception posted, DECEMBER 9, 2012 AT 11:59 PM

Do the riches of the Detroit Institute of Arts make the city solvent?  Would putting them to work save them from risk?

These crucial questions — which defy conventional rules of museum practice and ethics, but might nonetheless help Detroit's renewal — animate many of Mark White's waking moments.

White, a finance Ph.D., thinks originally and profoundly about  museum finance.  A theorist and inventor, he recognizes that starting up his novel methods will take iconic artworks at a willing major art museum.

For the last year, he has been a fixture on blogs and discussion boards here as he tries to raise awareness around how to solve Detroit's fiscal crisis and protect DIA artworks with his masterpiece idea:  Put the capital riches locked in iconic works of art to work by selling shares in the artwork's appreciation to individual investors, while the major museum keeps rights to the display and physical custody of the works.

He calls this Coaccession, and he's devoted so much effort to Detroit because the many, many billions of dollars in its DIA can fix the City's finances, and by doing so save its DIA collection from default and dispersal. "The DIA is the only museum with the complete package," he told me.

He lives in Evanston, Ill., and has schooled himself remotely on the institute and its relationship to Detroit's misfortune. He's contacted Detroit officials, drawn up documents, consulted lawyers and answered objections.  What he hasn't done is sell his concept to Detroit yet.

White gained museum experience as a board member of the Evanston History Center, but it's far too small to bring Coaccession to fruition, and he can't afford the bigger boards around Chicago.  Eden Pearlman, the museum's executive director, says the EHC has no iconic artworks to make all the lawyers, accountants, appraisers, curators, etc., affordable as they work to start Coaccession with White's guidance.

Still, she recognizes a certain visionary gleam. "I do think there's something there," she says. "This may be one of those ideas where later we all wonder why we were so set against it."

She's talking about the opposition to even to talking about this idea, which runs deep among museum people because museums want to be like churches: Aspiring to higher values than material ones. Unfortunately, this leaves many churches and museums sitting atop vast idle wealth while they're surrounded by unmet needs.  White is the skunk at the garden party when he points this out.

White thinks a city with this kind of wealth will have to put it to work, unlike a church or a museum.  A city's first obligation is to its residents, not its art collections and gold fixtures.  Thus, his interest in the city of Detroit and the DIA.

And as Detroit lurches toward bankruptcy, his questions, which once seemed wildly inappropriate, are merely provocative. Can the city declare itself insolvent if it owns billions of dollars of art? The vast majority of the DIA's collection is city property, much of it purchased with city funds in the 1920s.

Imagine city residents faced with eliminating police service and firehouses, while city leaders insist on protecting Detroit's museum collection instead of its residents, acting as if an unbreachable wall seals residents off from using the many, many billions of dollars the city keeps invested in its DIA Van Goghs, Renoirs and Rembrandts.

No such wall exists, so White expects city leaders will eventually use those Detroit financial resources invested in artworks -- Bing's Billions, he's called them -- to pay for priority services.  But rather than selling Detroit's artworks to collectors and museums around the world, White wants Detroit to sell investments in DIA artworks hanging on DIA walls.  He says Detroit should have its Monet and money too.

Bankruptcy lawyers and museum officials will tell you nobody knows what might happen, or what might be possible, if the City of Detroit defaults on debt obligations. DIA spokeswoman Pam Marcil says, "Those are uncharted waters. It's all speculative." The museum's code of ethics, absolutely prohibiting it from selling art to raise funds, has no force of law. Its 20-year-contract with the city expires in 2018, letting Detroit sell art for cash now with delivery then, or Coaccession art for cash now and keep it on DIA walls.

White wants to move Detroit's discussion beyond museum morality and emotion to municipal morality and emotion.  There, lives have to come before art, so Detroit must put its financial resources to work.  Fortunately, White knows that saving Detroit lives doesn't mean losing Detroit art.

He notes that Detroit takes a chance either way.  Innovators, he points out, are frequently wrong  After years of working with experts, seeing others developing innovations with similar goals, and then seeing artwork shares actually start trading, he said in a telephone call, "I could be a crackpot, but I think I'm a genius."  Detroit should hope he's right.

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