Opinion
10:47 am
Tue January 14, 2014

It's time for Snyder to fight for the DIA

Lessenberry commentary for 1/14/14

Ever since Detroit’s bankruptcy filing was announced last summer, there has been one major concern in the art world.

What will happen to the Detroit Institute of Arts and its world-class collection, something previously assumed to be untouchable and priceless? When emergency manager Kevyn Orr said the collection needed to be inventoried and appraised, it caused greater shock in some circles than the bankruptcy itself.

At first, I assumed this was a bluff, possibly designed to demonstrate how deep the city’s crisis really was.

But it quickly became clear that the creditors want their money by any means necessary. And for many, art takes a back seat to their stomachs. One former council member, a highly educated woman and a single parent, told me “I am tired of hearing that the pension I worked for is less important than your right to drive down here and see a Van Gogh.”

She has a point. Recognizing this, foundation leaders got together last fall in the courtroom of Gerald Rosen, the chief federal district judge in Detroit. Rosen is the mediator in the bankruptcy, and is determined to try to find the best possible solution for everyone.

Yesterday, the foundations announced pledges for up to $330 million for saving art in Detroit. The idea is that this would be used to supplement those underfunded pension funds, so the art would not have to be sold. That is a great idea – in theory.

But yesterday’s announcement contains as many uncertainties as reasons for optimism. While impressive, the money is less than was hoped for. It doesn’t come close to filling the hole in the pension funds. It is substantially less than even the lowest amount Christie’s auction house estimated the DIA’s art would bring.

So far, the state of Michigan hasn’t committed a dollar to save the DIA, and Gov. Rick Snyder has been coolly silent as to whether he will fight for any state backing.

And we don’t have a clue as to whether this will pass muster with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Rhodes. He is regarded as a master of the law and a stickler for detail. And the federal bankruptcy code says all creditors are supposed to be treated equally.

What needs to happen now is for the governor to step up, and show the state is willing to commit to helping save the DIA. Nor would it hurt if Michigan’s U.S. senators and some of our more prominent congressmen weighed in. I am not talking about asking for money from the federal government.

But the Levin name in particular carries huge prestige. Pensions are important, but so is paying the bills, period.

Creditors have a right to want their money. I am not unsympathetic to the angry woman who cared more about saving her house than my ability to visit the DIA. But a city without culture is not a city but a refugee camp. In the words of the famous poem: “Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses, too."

Forty years ago, Gov. William Milliken recognized that the DIA is an asset to all Michigan, and fought for state funding for it. It is time for Rick Snyder to do the same. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.