"This building was built by working people," Lawrence Porter told a crowd of almost 200 people who gathered in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) yesterday evening, October 4, 2013, to protest a plan to sell off the museum and its art collection in order to pay some of Detroit's debts. Porter is a spokesman for the Socialist Equality Party (SEP), which organized the protest.
A few protesters had already gathered in front of the DIA half an hour before the rally's announced 5:30 p.m. start time. By 6:00 p.m., there were at least 100 protesters marching in a circuit and about another 100 or so people looking on. "I'd ... like to thank the monitors from the National Lawyers Guild," Porter said in his remarks. The lawyers were on standby in case any of the protesters were arrested, but by 7:00 p.m., the protest had ended peacefully and without any police involvement.
At first there was one drummer helping to add rhythmic drive to the protesters' chanting, but as the event went on, more and more drummers joined, including one who played a cymbal on the ground and a plastic bucket. A saxophonist joined near the end, playing an alto saxophone in E-flat. "I wish I had a vuvuzela," said Jessica Hopkins, curator of the Museum of New Art in Armada, who was a little hoarse after chanting slogans like "hey, hey, corporate vultures, keep your hands off our culture."
Some protesters used printed signs prepared by the SEP, but many made their own signs. Most of the printed signs said "Defend the DIA." Many of the homemade signs included puns on the names of famous painters, like "show me the Monet" and one urging Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager in Detroit, to "Gogh away from the DIA."
"I love all the art puns" on the protesters' signs, said Kelly Guillory, one of the artists behind the graphic novel Blood Money, which is set in Detroit. The premiere issue of the graphic novel is slated for October 17 and Guillory is still working on it. "I stopped editing because this is important," she said. She plans to resume work on the graphic novel today, but yesterday she put on her cake mask and came down to the DIA to join the protest.
The protesters included several artists, including Jef Bourgeau and Prof. Gilda Snowden, artists recognized by Jim Pallas as giants of Detroit art. "They're trying to make it look like the people of Detroit don't care about the arts," Snowden said. She credits the DIA for inspiring her to become an artist; now five of her pieces are in the DIA's permanent collection, according to the museum's website.
There were also a few art students as well as recent art school graduates among the protesters, like Katie Craig, who studied with Snowden at the College for Creative Studies (CCS). Craig did not have a sign, but instead carried an empty frame. "I was thinking conceptually, what it would be like" if the art was sold, she explained.
Fieke van Berkom made a sign using materials found at a Detroit recycling center; her sign reads "Vita brevis, longa art," alluding to an aphorism from Hippocrates that starts off "Ars longa, vita brevis." Berkom, an Eindhoven, Holland native, recalled the first time she visited the DIA three years ago. "It felt magical," she said. The piece that most impressed her were the murals by Diego Rivera, which a flier for the protest describes as "irreplaceable."
Berkom has been to the Beukburo in Eindhoven and other museums in Europe and America, and she agrees that the DIA is a world-class museum. "Even if selling [the art could] save the workers' pensions, the plan is … [a] short-sighted solution," said Mike Espejo, a worker for the city government of a Detroit suburb. "If there is a rebound, what then about the tourists?" he asked.
Most of the protesters were unaware of the plan to sell of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). "We're opposed to all cuts" and all plans to sell off city assets, Porter said, speaking for the SEP, including cuts to workers' pensions and the plan to sell off the DWSD.
The lone voice of opposition at the protest was Gregory Creswell. "Sell it all!" Creswell urged, and specifically suggested selling off the DIA, the DWSD, Belle Isle and the Detroit Zoo. "The only function of city government," according to Creswell, is to provide a police department. "What's your problem?" Snowden asked Creswell. "Taxes!" Creswell replied.
According to a flier for the protest, Orr hired Christie's to appraise the value of the museum's art collection "in preparation for selling off the art to cover the city's debt." The flier asserts that "after they take the art, the banks will be even more eager to steal municipal workers' pensions and to slash city services!"