Cultural Patrimony versus Monetary Debt: What are “Public Goods” Worth?

by Claire Smith

What is the value of art?  Does it have different value when it is under public ownership?  Art is something that defies standard valuation metrics of commodities as it holds value beyond a market-driven price.  Symbolic meaning is a fundamental aspect of prices, particularly in the case of such things as art where price as evaluation metric is taboo; art has meaning and value beyond its monetary worth.  When art is held publically, there is an additional dimension of value – that of the public good.  What is the public good and what is it worth?  Who decides the answers to this question?  The bankruptcy of Detroit and the potential sale of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection illustrate the ambiguity and tension in determining the value of a collection of art.  At stake is the dire financial situation of the city, the creditors, the pensioners, art lovers, donors of the art, and the public good, and they all have unique perspectives and stakes in the final outcome of the debate over the fate of the DIA collection.  The incommensurability of the value of cultural patrimony and the monetary value of the debt leads to a lack of coordination of valuations; there is no single quality by which you can compare the value of paying down Detroit’s debt and the value the art holds for the collective good of the people of Detroit.  How do you compare the pensioner’s interests in receiving the pension they were promised to the symbolic value of public art and the cultural heritage of a city?  The process by which that decision is made begs questions pertaining to what exactly is the “common good” and how are relations of power and inequality manifested through such decisions?   Whose art is this and what is its worth? Is it worth paying down the debt?  Is it worth boosting the financial stability of the pensioners?  Is it valuable because of its potential to foster economic revitalization, or is it valuable for something more such as a symbolic, commonly held, unpriceable good?  The relational nature of how these decisions are made and how value is assigned and negotiated are important questions and Detroit serves as an illustrative example because so much is at stake – a renowned art collection with historical roots to the city, the urban distresses of the contemporary city, and the complex interconnectedness between them.

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