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Detroit’s Art is Not the Key to its Revival

by Emily Washington on June 6, 2013

in City Life, Culture, Debt

This post originally appeared at Market Urbanism, a blog about free-market urban development.

Detroit’s art assets have made news as Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is evaluating the city’s assets for a potential bankruptcy filing. Belle Isle, where Rod Lockwood recently proposed a free city-state may be on the chopping block, but according to a Detroit Free Press poll, residents are most concerned about the city auctioning pieces from the Detroit Institute of the Arts’ collection.

I’ve written previously about the downsides of publicly funding art from the perspective of free speech, but the Detroit case presents a new reason why cities are not the best keepers of artistic treasures. Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette contrasts the Detroit Institute of Art’s situation with the benefits of a museum funded with an endowment:

As usual, Andrew Carnegie knew what he was doing.

The steel baron turned philanthropist put the City of Pittsburgh in charge of operating the library he gave it in 1895, but when he added an art museum to the Oakland facility just one year later, he kept it out of city hands.

“The city is not to maintain [the art gallery and museum],” Carnegie said in his dedication address. “These are to be regarded as wise extravagances, for which public revenues should not be given, not as necessaries. These are such gifts as a citizen may fitly bestow upon a community and endow, so that it will cost the city nothing.”

Museums and other cultural amenities  are a sign of a city’s success, not drivers of success itself. The correlation between culturally interesting cities and cities with strong economic opportunities is often mistakenly interpreted to demonstrate that if cities do more to build their cultural appeal from the top down, they will encourage job growth in the process. Rather, a productive and well-educated population both demand and supply these amenities. While an art museum may increase tourism on the margin, it is unlikely to draw additional firms or individuals away from other locations. Detroit is sitting on an estimated $2.5 billion in art, enough to put a dent in its $15 billion long-term obligations.

On a recent episode of Econtalk, Ed Glaeser explains that over investing in public amenities relative to demand is a sign of continued challenges for municipalities:

It is so natural and so attractive to plunk down a new skyscraper and declare Cleveland has ‘come back.’ Or to build a monorail and pretend you are going to be just as successful as Disney World, for some reason. You get short-term headlines even when this infrastructure is just totally ill-suited for the actual needs of the city. The hallmark of declining cities is to have over-funded infrastructure relative to the level of demand in that city.

Similarly, cities throwing resources at museums and other amenities designed to attract the “creative class” are highly likely to fail because bureaucrats are poorly-positioned to learn about and respond to their municipalities’ cultural demands. When cities do successfully provide cultural amenities, they are catering primarily to well-educated, high-income residents — not the groups that should be the targets of government programs.

I think it’s highly unlikely that Detroit will sell off any taxpayer-owned art to pay down its debts based on the media and political blow back the possibility has seen. However, seeing the city in a position where it owns enough art to cover a substantial portion of its unsustainable long-term debts demonstrates why municipalities should not be curators. Tying up municipal resources in art is irresponsible. The uncertainty that the city’s debt creates for future tax and service provision is clearly detrimental to economic growth. While assets like museums are nice for residents, they do not attract or keep residents or jobs.

Detroit does have an important asset; new ideas need cheap rent. Detroit’s affordable real estate is attracting start ups with five of the metro area’s young companies making Brand Innovator’s list of American brands to watch. While these budding businesses could be key players in the city’s economic recovery, top-down plans to preserve and increase cultural amenities for these firms’ employees will not.

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