Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Municipal Ethicist's Point of View

Mark White's rewrite of Laura Berman's 
"Theorist suggests DIA riches will fix city" 
original from Detroit News, DECEMBER 4, 2012 AT 10:10 AM
rewrite on, DECEMBER 8, 2012 AT 10:15 PM

If the city defaults, could the riches at the Detroit Institute of Arts be at risk?

Bankruptcy lawyers and DIA 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 prohibits the DIA itself from selling art to raise funds, but it's the city's art, not the DIA's art.  The museum interprets its 20-year-contract with the city to preclude city sales of art or alternative agreements or arrangements, but a municipal default hasn't tested this contract, which expires in 2018.

This question — could the riches at the Detroit Institute of Arts indeed be at risk? — animates many of Mark White's waking moments.

White, who has a Ph.D. in finance, is an iconoclast of museum finance: a theorist who wants to overturn traditions, innovating with a willing arts institution.

For the last year, he has been a fixture on blogs and discussion boards here as he tries to create awareness around the risks to Detroit's DIA art collection.  His alternative to save the art?  Put the capital riches created by iconic works of art to work for Detroit, raising billions of dollars by selling shares in DIA artworks to individual investors, while letting the city keep rights to the display and physical custody of the works.

He calls this Coaccession, and he's gotten hard pushback on it. "What I haven't found is a museum executive director willing to sign on," he told me.  "They recognize it transforms their finances, but they can't get past museum 'ethics.'"

White, who lives in Evanston, Ill., focuses on the DIA's relationship to Detroit's misfortune because he thinks municipal ethics should guide Detroit arts policy.  To put Detroit's artworks to work, he's researched various alternatives and drawn up documents, consulted lawyers and other experts, and answered objections to his own Coaccession method.

White is a board member of the Evanston History Center, where he's been learning more about museum collections and policies.  Coaccession is on hold there.  Eden Pearlman, the museum's executive director, says she worries about a potential conflict of interest and the museum isn't in dire financial straits.

But 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."

Museum opposition even to talking about this idea runs deep, because museums claim to be like churches: They aspire to higher values than material ones. In an age when everything from warehouse receipts to orange juice has become a commodity, art museums claim to offer a sense of refuge.  Like so many churches in Detroit, though, museums may have to innovate to keep everything together.  Many have failed.

What White needs to prove his concept is a museum that faces higher risks from standing pat with its traditions than from developing the art finance innovation that White's research has designed. Thus, his interest in the city of Detroit and the DIA.

And as Detroit lurches toward bankruptcy, his question, which once seemed wildly inappropriate, is 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, and vastly appreciated since.

Imagine city residents faced with eliminated pensions and slashed police service, while city leaders and DIA officials act as if an unbreachable wall seals those residents off from the vast city resources -- billions and billions of dollars -- invested in the Van Goghs, Renoirs and Rembrandts that hang on DIA walls .

No such wall exists.  Municipal codes of ethics absolutely let cities sell art to raise funds.  The DIA's 20-year-contract with the city can be interpreted to let the city sell art today for delivery in 2018, or to use Coaccession -- which wasn't even a gleam in anyone's eye in 1998 -- to put Detroit's artworks to work now.

White wants to move the discussion beyond just the morality and emotion of museum ethics, and start talking about the morality and emotion of raising funds for municipal priorities like avoiding default and funding public safety.

White admits that Detroit takes a chance if it innovates.  Innovators, he points out, are frequently wrong. "I could be a crackpot," he said.  Musing on the telephone about all the experts he's consulted, the markets he's studied and the many risks Detroit faces from just standing pat, he continues: "But I think I'm a genius."

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