When the Carnegie Museum of Art opened its doors in Pittsburgh in 1895, founder Andrew Carnegie envisioned it as being a sanctuary where “a record of the progress and development of pictorial art in America” could be preserved.
After 118 years, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone claiming that it hasn’t lived up to Carnegie’s original vision. It’s one of the primary focal points of the region’s cultural life and has been protected from decades of economic turbulence because its collection is owned and the museum is operated through an institute established by Carnegie. Times have been good and times have been bad, but the Carnegie Museum of Art and the other institutions in the Carnegie Museum system, such as the Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, have the means to withstand the most punishing of economic storms.
If only the Detroit Institute of Arts enjoyed a similar sense of security.
The 130-year-old museum has apparently been eyed by an emergency manager appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to try to stanch the red ink Detroit has been bleeding. Because the Detroit Institute of Arts is operated by the city, and the art within it is considered municipal property, singular pieces of art, such as an 1887 self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh or the murals by Diego Rivera that adorn its walls, could, at least theoretically, end up being sold off in order to help relieve the city’s $16 billion debt.
There’s been a considerable backlash, both within Detroit and beyond, at the prospect of a cultural cornerstone like the Detroit Institute of Arts being diminished or eliminated, and not without good reason. If things are so dire that they need to put the “for sale” sign in front of the museum, then they may as well just turn out the lights and close the curtains on the Motor City.
Fortunately, it’s looking less and less likely that the Detroit Institute of Arts is going to be permanently shuttered to help remedy a temporary problem. But the mere possibility of it occurring has been sufficient to make people who appreciate the arts and the value the arts have in civic life stand up and take notice. If it could happen in Detroit, why not elsewhere?
Let’s be thankful, then, that it won’t happen in Pittsburgh.