A long time ago a young man set out to make his mark in the commercial art world. He went to work for a major New York gallery, which we’ll call Wildenstein. A few years later the dejected man resigned, saying the world of international art had much to do with moving great sums of money across borders and almost nothing to do with beauty. Art and money: last month an anonymous buyer bought Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” for $142.4 million. Last week the monetization of art was again in the news with Detroit’s Dilemma: should the city tap into its Arts Institute’s extraordinary collection to help pay down its mind-bending debt? You bet, say its creditors, art is not “essential” to Detroit.
I mean, people sell art all the time. It’s why Wildenstein exists. It’s the primary “business” of Christie’s, which Detroit hired to appraise its collection. It’s how the museum got some of its finest pieces in the first place. Why not unload a few and give this reeling, impoverished city a lift? Wouldn’t Van Gogh want to sell his “Portrait of Postman Roulin” to help the city’s workers? Wouldn’t Diego Rivera, whose room of murals celebrates working people, want art to benefit the masses instead of the privileged few?
This dilemma is the unhappy legacy of big money and art, of Wildenstein and Christie’s. But go into the museum. Lose yourself in its beauty. Sell the collection? It would be like selling the city’s soul.