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Detroit's Art is Worth More In the Museum than Out

When rumors that the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) might sell its treasured paintings to balance the city’s ledgers first surfaced in May, I wrote a defense of the museum on cultural grounds. (My argument: “Every person should have the chance, not just to see art, but to live down the street from it.”) Now that the city has become the largest in American history to file for bankruptcy, and its Bruegel and Matisse are unambiguously on the table, I’d like to attempt another apologia—this time, relying on cold, hard economics.

Experts have estimated that the DIA’s collection could fetch $2 billion on the auction block. That’s the amount of money Michigan’s cultural institutions—of which the DIA is the crown jewel—generated in tourist dollars in the year 2011 alone, according to a study called Creative State Michigan.

As funding for the arts has dwindled in the last decade, their advocates have marshaled research to show that culture is valuable in more than the abstract. A 2012 study by the group Americans for the Arts calculated that nonprofit arts organizations (museums, theaters, community art centers, and the like) generate $22.3 billion a year for local, state, and federal governments nationwide—a more than 500 percent return on the roughly $4 billion that government puts in. Much of that money comes in the form of taxes levied on cultural tourists, who spend liberally on everything from parking to hotels to dinner out after a show: The study finds that arts tourists spend an average of $24.60 per person, per outing, not including the cost of admission. And arts institutions are moderately big spenders themselves, spending $61.1 billion a year and supporting 4.1 million full-time jobs.

Detroit is no different. Last winter, Crain’s Detroit Business reported: “For every $1 the state invested in nonprofit arts and cultural groups in 2009, those organizations pumped more than $51 into Michigan's economy through spending on rent, programs, travel and salaries,” referencing the Creative State Michigan research. Americans for the Arts calculates that the nonprofit arts generated $20,331,000 for local governments in Southeastern Michigan in fiscal year 2010, and $34,532,000 for the state government.

The DIA did not immediately return a request for comment regarding its economic impact on its flagging hometown, but The New York Times places its annual attendance at around 600,000. Americans for the Arts says cultural tourists in Michigan spend an average of $16.65 a head. In that case, the DIA brings in almost $10 million a year in tourist dollars.     

Of course, Detroit will face a lot of tough choices in the coming years, and the question of whether to sell its art won’t be the worst one. “It’s hard to go to a pensioner on a fixed income and say ‘We’re going to cut 20 percent of your income or 30 percent or whatever the number is, but art is eternal,’” a spokesman for state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn D. Orr told The New York Times. He said Orr has not made any decisions about the paintings, but “we need to know how much they’re worth and we need to know what value are they bringing back to the city.” The kind of trickle-down economics arts groups use to find a favorable answer that that question may be a little bit generous to their cause. But it still shows that art is crucial to the health of a city—even if you calculate its worth in nickels and dimes.  

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ncaplanbricker.

Image via Shutterstock.