Editor’s Letter, September/October 2013

Editorial Staff Opinion

Like most editors I am interested in everything, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions. I have, in fact, far too many of them, so I like it when some of my prejudices get rearranged, as they were early last spring when Eleanor Gustafson and I visited the Philadelphia home of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley featured here. Ten rooms with aesthetic movement furniture, two hundred glass parlor domes, automata of a smoking monkey and a Renaissance nobleman strumming a mandolin, rare conservatory plants, and other Victoriana? Deeply cuckoo I figured. I was wrong. 

All great collecting is, I think, a form of autobiography, and the more sincere it is, the more suc­cessful. “No one lives like this anymore,” a friend said when I showed him my snapshots of the rooms. Also wrong. No one ever lived like this, and that is exactly what won me over. I admire everything about the Whitenight-LaValley house, but what I love most is its boldness and sincer­ity-the take it or leave it, no apologies, attitude. This is not a folly, not a sly recreational wink. And it is not a period piece. These rooms lift the past up, giving us Victoriana without the imperialism, the smugness, and the neurasthenia; the aesthetic movement without its pieties about art. No one will pass this way again because no one will have this kind of courage, scholarship, and, yes, paradoxically, restraint. We can only look on in awe.

By the time you read this I hope the future of the Detroit Institute of Arts will be assured. As an asset of the city, which is in bankruptcy, it is in play and Christie’s has already visited to troll through its treasures. Our Endnotes page gathers comments from people who understand that this is a precedent-setting moment: if the DIA or its artworks should be sold to help pay off Detroit’s creditors that can happen to museums in any num­ber of cities. But more than that, we want to draw attention to the DIA itself, which should be far better known. Its encyclopedic collections place it in the top echelon of this country’s museums, and its programming, especially for a museum located in the devastated inner city, has enticed black and white, rich and poor, to enjoy in equal measure eighteenth-century French porcelain and African-American art as well as so much else. There has been far too much talk in the press suggest­ing that Detroit must make a choice between safe streets, good schools, and a world-class museum. This is nonsense. The DIA has been a model of community outreach, one of the most intelligent and successful investments the city could have made for its citizens, who use and treasure it. Those are the facts, and, as it happens, they coincide quite nicely with my opinions.