Archives and Art: A Story from Detroit

The story of Detroit’s bankruptcy and the accompanying challenges has been in the news regularly for some time. My French-Canadian ancestors came across “détroit” (the straits) in the 1790s and generations of my family have been proud to call that city home—and when asked where I’m from, I still claim Detroit. I was fortunate to pursue my archival education at Wayne State University in the archival studies program led by Dr. Philip P. Mason. One of the great gifts for students at Wayne is the nearness of the Detroit Institute of Art, where we often would head on weekends or between classes to wander through the galleries. So I regularly read the articles about the bankruptcy, which included discussions of potentially selling off some or all of the astonishing collections of the DIA.

What does this have to do with archives? In a recent NY Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/08/arts/design/grand-bargain-saves-the-detroit-institute-of-arts.html?_r=1) a few sentences are tucked in that jump out to an archivist. DIA staff, anxious to prevent the attack on this incomparable art collection, went to their own institutional archives to see if there was any evidence that could help prevent possible sale. And yes, they hit pay dirt. Some of the most important pieces in the collection, such as Tintoretto’s “The Dreams of Men”, included agreements that restricted conditions of sale. At the very least, efforts to “monetize” the collection would have been tied up in the courts for years because of the archival evidence they found. Fortunately, this trump card did not have to be played because an alternative to funding the DIA was found. Nonetheless, the archives of the DIA was and will continue to be, a potent resource to protect and preserve this incredible art collection for the public.

So again, here is an example of why archives matter—but also evidence of how much that role is downplayed. One needs to read the article carefully to even realize the key role of archives in protecting the collection. That leaves me with two “to do” items to suggest to all of us.

First, when reading the news, look for the archival story behind the story—often it is glossed over, barely mentioned. Keep an eye out for the understated archival story, and when you find it, share the reference with me/SAA so we can add it to our growing resource to demonstrate how archives affect lives. Second, whenever you have the chance to speak with journalists about an historical event, a political issue, a person of interest, stress to them the importance of archives in providing the essential evidence. We need to be explicit, focused, and yes, we need to champion the role of archives. Advocacy begins with us.

3 responses to “Archives and Art: A Story from Detroit

  1. “First, when reading the news, look for the archival story behind the story—often it is glossed over, barely mentioned. Keep an eye out for the understated archival story, and when you find it, share the reference with me/SAA ”

    a reason why I started collecting and posting stories to the A&A list over 18 years ago
    even the obvious archival stories are ignored

  2. It occurs to me, in the case of Detroit museums but also other kinds of archives, that the reason for this invisibility may lie in keeping the entirety of holding records hidden from the public. In some unfortunate cases this may hide a history of bad management, and some materials in holding records must be kept private for security and other reasons, as in the case cited holding records can reveal the drama, excitement, and public service constituted by archival work as nothing else can. In the holding record is the granular story of archives; I look forward in the future to the exploration of holding records from many archives as big data that can reveal what archivists have thought and done on a large scale.

  3. Restrictive covenants used for good instead of evil? Incroyable.

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