Trading art for sewer repairs

Sept. 8, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

A recent story out of Duluth provides another sad example of shortsighted bumbling by elected officials.

This is by no means a new development. Duluth, like so many other cities, has a rich history of governmental incompetence.

The current situation began with the announcement that the city is looking for ways to cope with a $6.5 million budget shortfall.

This represents a relatively small percentage of the city’s $259 million budget for 2008, but it is still a lot of dough.

The city council’s roving eye targeted a number of other possible cuts and then settled on the Minnehaha window.

Currently on display at the Duluth Depot Heritage and Arts Center, the stained glass window was made in 1893 by the Tiffany Studios in New York.

It is four feet wide by 12 feet high and depicts the fictional Native American princess Minnehaha (from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem, “The Song of Hiawatha”).

The Minnehaha window was commissioned by the State of Minnesota for the state’s exhibition at the 1893 Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) in Chicago. After the exposition, it was purchased by the St. Louis County Women’s Auxiliary, a civic group that raised some of the money to buy the window with the help of schoolchildren who donated pennies.

The group donated the window to the city for display in the public library.

The window was designed by Tiffany artist Ann Westin, who later moved to Duluth with her family and designed a number of other windows for churches and public buildings in the city.

The current city council, however, does not see the window as a historical artifact that has been a part of the city for 115 years. It sees it merely as a trinket to be sold for some quick cash.

Despite opposition from city residents, the council voted Aug. 26 to allow the city administration to sell the window at auction.

The callous and unenlightened attitude of at least some of the city officials who supported the sale are reflected in the comments of Mark McShane, director of administrative services for the city, who was quoted as saying “The City of Duluth is not a museum, and some of the things we have in our possession aren’t necessarily things that we should have in our possession.”

Some might argue that decisions like this should be left up to city residents.

There has been significant opposition to the plan, but city officials seem to view the sale as no more important than a guy clearing out his garage and having a sale.

Some estimates put the value of the window as high as $3 million.

The budget situation in Duluth is serious, and a quick injection of cash might be welcome, but there is a big difference between selling off some old desks and file cabinets from the city hall basement (for example) and selling off the city’s artistic heritage to the highest bidder.

If we use the kind of thinking demonstrated by the city council as a guide, it is not that much of a stretch to see how the US government could sell the Statue of Liberty (which was dedicated about seven years after the window was commissioned) to help solve its budget problems.

With its 31 tons of copper and 125 tons of steel, the statue ought to fetch a good price at the scrap yard.

It may sound extreme to suggest that our national and local treasures are garage sale fodder, but if we ignore the historical, artistic, and cultural significance of things, and reduce them to nothing more than their current cash value, that is effectively what we are doing.

Two points emerge.

First, the artistic heritage of any city, county, or nation, belongs not to the current bunch of buffoons in charge, but to the people.

Just as the Statue of Liberty was a gift of friendship from the people of France to the people of the US, the Minnehaha was donated to the city by civic-minded individuals who raised money so the window could be enjoyed by future generations of Duluthians. The key is these things were donated to the people, not the politicians. Neither the statue nor the window were intended to be simply assets that could be converted to cash to get elected officials out of a jam caused by poor management.

The second point is that even if the window fetches $3 million, it won’t solve the city’s problems.

In order to eliminate its budget problems, the city will need to make tough decisions about spending and use responsible financial planning.

As a work of art, the window has value for generations. As a means of reducing the current deficit, it has a one-time value that will be forgotten by the next budget cycle.

The City of Duluth is predicting an even greater deficit of $8.4 million in 2009. Where will it end? Once the city has sold off all of its artistic treasures, will it start selling icons like the Aerial Lift Bridge and Enger Tower to pay for sewer repairs and fuel for city vehicles?

Elected officials should have the vision to see the long-term effects of their actions, and make decisions for the future, not just for today. Unfortunately, the current bunch of stooges in Duluth’s city hall, like some of their counterparts in other cities, haven’t quite figured that out.