Murals painted by Mexican-born artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) that are now located at the Detroit Institute of Arts have recently been given National Historic Landmark status. This designation was bestowed on the murals by U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell.
According to the Detroit Free Press, the murals were given this prestigious distinction because they interpret part of the heritage of the United States in an exceptional manner.
What Are the Rivera Murals
Rivera painted his famous murals during the American Great Depression, beginning them in July 1932 and finishing them in March 1933. The murals show Detroit’s manufacturing industries and the laborers in those industries, representing the way the people of Detroit lived and worked during that time period.
The works were painted on the garden court walls at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and have remained there ever since.
In fact, the murals were the result of a commission given to Rivera by then-DIA director William Valentiner and commissioner Edsel Ford. The two men paid Rivera $25,000 for the work, and asked only that he paint something that represented Detroit’s history and industry. Rivera was given free rein in how he chose to fulfill his commission.
Today, the murals are part of the very identity of Detroit; most locals could not separate one from the other in their minds, because they are so closely tied to each other, both physically and metaphorically.
The people of Detroit treasure these murals now, though there was some controversy associated with them when they were first unveiled. Originally, some people of the city thought the murals were sacrilegious, some thought they were pornographic, and others thought they were thinly veiled references to Rivera’s own Marxist political leanings.
However, as time went by, the murals’ very realistic depictions of Detroit as it was during the Great Depression led to them being largely considered by most locals to be hometown treasures, and pieces of the city’s history that must be preserved.
The Murals and Detroit’s Bankruptcy
The designation of the Rivera murals is a great honor for Detroit and for the DIA. It promises to bring a little more money in tourist dollars to the cash-strapped city. The designation may also make the DIA a little more valuable as a building.
However, it will have little impact in the struggle over deciding the future of the DIA, which has had its budget affected by the city’s bankruptcy. The city is trying hard to protect the building, but the possibility of all or part of it having to be sold to pay off the city debt is not yet off the table completely.
In fact, several of the city’s creditors are pushing the state courts to force such a sale.
If all or part of a building has been designated as a National Historic Landmark, this does not necessarily protect the building from being sold or changed in any way by new owners. If the landmark gets federal funding, then the owner of such a building has to go through a review process by the government to ensure the historic integrity of the building is protected before any changes can be made.
However, the DIA does not receive federal funding, so the newly honored murals could potentially be at risk, if Detroit is forced to sell all or part of the DIA. If the murals ever become endangered by a change in ownership of the DIA, it would then be up to private citizens to work together with the new owner to find a way to move and preserve them.