The idea is tantalizing but also utopian: What if the city could keep its cultural art treasures — but let private investors reap the capital value of art appreciating on museum walls?
Mark White, an idiosyncratic finance Ph.D., has been promoting this idea for years, zeroing in on Detroit as its financial condition deteriorated and desperation grew. His pitch: Keep the Monets on the wall, while allowing others to trade on the art’s skyrocketing value. Investors would buy and sell shares, profiting without plucking any canvas off the wall.
Sounds swell in theory, perhaps. But I once compared White — who lives in Evanston, Ill. — to a mad scientist, looking for a venue for his latest experiment. Although a fixture on Internet bulletin boards, he’s been studiously ignored by the Detroit Institute of Arts and city leaders. Bill Nowling, spokesman for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, wrote him off in an email Wednesday, saying White has “no credibility in the art community, finance community or public sector.”
That’s harsh: White has teamed up with James Maroney, a former Sotheby’s and Christie’s executive who has an interest in art finance innovation. Together, they’re trying to convince the pension board that it could pay its pensioners and let the DIA keep its treasured “Wedding Dance” painting, too.
The pension board trustees weren’t encouraging: Some left the room before White spoke, and they asked none of the most obvious questions. (Why would investors want to buy art they couldn’t possess? He compares the idea to a gold exchange or index, where shares trade, not precious metals.)
But White’s pitch does keep an important revelation swirling in the air — a lesson learned over the last year, as taboos about discussing art, wealth and museums in the same sentence fell away. Even if the grand bargain being brokered by Gerald Rosen (the federal judge who is acting as mediator) is approved, as I hope it is, we are stuck with a moral conundrum.
The combination of recession and art appreciation have laid bare an incongruity on the landscape: The DIA and other museums exist as islands of vast wealth surrounded by oceans of poverty and needs. Last summer, Frank Robinson, a respected art world figure and former museum director, posed the question in the New York Times, asking, “How many lives is a Rembrandt worth?”
Wednesday, White tried to convince trustees that their duty to pensioners required them to give more than a passing nod to his notion that financial innovation could unleash billions of dollars in cash that would pay their obligations and restore city services.
“Detroit’s not broke,” he said. “Detroit’s got billions of dollars.” Nobody stirred.
Whatever White’s failings as the city’s potential savior, his quixotic fixation on reforming Detroit art museum financing has its own peculiar value. He’s among those who threaten the status quo, force the community to evaluate its relationship to art and create incentive for influential people to seek a viable way to preserve the DIA.
But White’s dogged, desperate pursuit of his idea also demonstrates that ideas, even good ones, don’t count for much without influential backers, detailed plans and the good fortune of perfect timing.