Monday, March 31, 2014

Bruegel and the "Dismal Science" in Detroit

There is a cool Bruegel, "The Wedding Dance" (1566) hanging in the Detroit Institute of Arts. For now, anyway.

 The museum paid $35,075 for the painting in 1930, or about $2.1 million in today's dollars. According to the auction house Christies, today it would fetch $200 million.  

As it happens, Detroit is bankrupt.  Creditors would dearly love to put their fingers on this Bruegel.  Should they? And to what lengths should the city go to avoid this fate?  Economist Robert Frank examines the question.  

This is offensive to some.  Here's an email I received from Sandy Zirulnik, one of my retired friends:  
The author is ROBERT H. FRANK, an economics professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.  Applying science in a stupid way to come to a ridiculous conclusion [sell art; build schools], in my humble opinion.....How many economists does it take to screw a light bulb?
 I’m not attacking science, I am disappointed that nonsensical thinking masquerades as science.  This article is embarrassingly idiotic.  Shame on the author, shame on the NY Times for printing this drivel, shame on Cornell for giving this guy a job title.

Should the museum () do a calculation and say “we can better spend the money on street lights”?  This misses the point.  The Breugel painting, which I have seen many times, was not acquired by anyone for $200 million.  It may be worth that on the open market, but it is not on the open market.  The museum is lucky it owns the work free and clear.  Just because someone might pay that kind of money for it does not mean that the “people”, who own the painting, should sell it. 
The theory that you can or should apply a cost/benefit analysis to artworks, especially publicly owned artwork makes no sense.  What is a ticket to a Barry Manilow concert worth?  Whatever someone will pay.  Should all art museums have "maximum high value" prices set for all of their artworks and sell when they hit that value?  That may apply to Dollar Stores, but not to cultural assets, which  are - as they say in the MasterCard commercials - "Priceless", which literally means no price.  Otherwise all such assets wind up belonging to the world's superrich because the people abdicated.

Visit the Dollar Store Museum of Art - Nothing over $0.99.
Well, they don't call it the dismal science for nothing!  But, of course, cost/benefit is one of the things economists spend their time thinking about.  It can be a pain in the ass because (bother) every time some economist raises a cost/benefit question like this, we've got to rack our brains about it.  It's like when GM did cost/benefit analysis on the Pinto gas tanks?  Really? Did they have to?  Some things in Detroit are just best left unexamined. 

I'm not offended by the question.   Although the city didn't pay $200,000,000 for this painting in 1930, the city is in bankruptcy and must consider shelling out—or someone must shell out on its behalf--$200 million today for the city to preserve the painting. [Or so I'm assuming for present purposes]

In light of that, it seems not inappropriate to ask whether this is the best use of $200 million for the city of Detroit right now.  The same question might be confronted by a philanthropist who wants to do some good.

I do like that Bruegel, and I would like to go see it some day.  It may not be sound cost/benefit analysis, but like my friend Sandy, I'm hoping Detroit gets to keep it's Bruegel. 

1 comment:

  1. When you go to the Detroit Art Museum, which will not sell it's holding to satisfy the demands of unfunded pension liabilities, make sure you see the Diego Rivera murals. They are probably the best of the genre and probably the best of his life time production.