Thursday, July 25, 2013

Peter Schjeldahl Should Be Fired

I usually do not post much about my other cultural policy interest apart from heritage policy, which is in the area of urban cultural policy and particularly the question of what cultural scenes consist in and what role -- if any -- various kinds of cultural scenes play in the life of cities, including their economic life. But the travails in Detroit are raising the specter of their museum being forced to sell off its collection, and at this moment when we most need thoughtful and helpful responses, I was appalled to read this from the New Yorker's art critic, Peter Schjeldahl.

You should read it for yourself, but I would characterize the gist as: "I don't know much about economics, being an art critic and all, but it is a 'no-brainer' to sell the DIA art collection because the choice is sell or cut pensioners' pensions." "No-brainer", indeed, but not in the way Schjeldahl means it.    The art critic appears to believe that selling would simply generate funds that would far outstrip the loss of tax revenues that the museum would otherwise generate.

It is true that if the museum were closed the city's tax revenues would probably be reduced immediately by only $10-15 million, not anywhere close enough to offset the gain from whatever the museum could sell off in that year.

But the economic impact of the museum is in no way captured fully by counting only tax revenues generated by tourists. Museums, and other arts, along with the various amenities that altogether constitute a city's cultural scene, are magnets for human capital. They attract not just tourists but residents (usually college-educated, but certainly likely to be creatively inclined do-it-yourselfers, to which the word "entrepreneurs" might be applied were it not in such bad repute) who might decide to move to or stay in Detroit because, yes, they have an amazing art collection (among other cool things). The future of Detroit depends on its ability of its city core to successfully compete for those people moving forward, because of the tax revenues they would generate. Those revenues that would continue indefinitely and that I imagine (though I have not done the analysis myself, I admit) would dwarf the $10-15 million in direct and indirect economic impact from tourists. Detroit's ability to do that will take a big hit if the museum is liquidated -- not just because the art itself will be gone but because the sale will signal that the city has given up on its core's future altogether.

All this should be obvious to anyone who takes a few minutes to scratch the surface of the issue, but our art critic relies instead on his privileged gut. "No-brainer" might be Schjeldahl's epithet going forward. The New Yorker should be ashamed of accepting this kind of idiocy, and should fire him.

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