New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl waffles on Detroit debate


It’s not often that a high-profile critic publicly issues a mea culpa and reverses an opinion. But that’s what happened last week when Peter Schjeldahl, the longtime art critic of the New Yorker magazine, backtracked on his stance on the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Schjeldahl incited the ire of much of the art world when he wrote a blog post supporting the selling of art work from the museum to help solve the city of Detroit’s serious financial woes.

“I demur from the hysterical piety, among many of my fellow art folk, that regularly greets news of museum deaccessions,” Schjeldahl wrote Wednesday. He argued that “art works have migrated throughout history,” and that if they have special value, “their sojourns in private hands are likely temporary.”


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The blog post was greeted with a chorus of condemnation from the art community. The art-related website Hyperallergic went as far as to say that “Peter Schjeldahl should be fired.”

Two days later, Schjeldahl reversed his stance. “I retract my hasty opinion for two specific reasons, and because I have a sounder grasp of the issues involved,” he wrote in a blog post Friday.

He said that he is now persuaded that a sale of the museum’s art, “besides making merely a dent in Detroit’s debt, could not conceivably bring dollar-for-dollar relief to the city’s pensioners.” He also said that the “principle of cultural patrimony is indeed germane, and it should be sacred.”

Schjeldahl also apologized “to the many whom my words pained.”

Detroit, which declared bankruptcy earlier this month, is facing debt estimated at $19 billion. News of the possible art sale was first reported in May by the Detroit Free Press. The city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, was reportedly considering selling objects from the museum and had set in motion an appraisal of works of art in the permanent collection.


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