WASHINGTON — Diego Rivera’s iconic “Detroit Industry” murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts received designation Wednesday as a National Historic Landmark by U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
The designation places the iconic Depression-era murals, inspired by the workers and scenes at the Ford River Rouge plant, on a list of more than 2,500 sites across the U.S. recognized “as places that possess exceptional value and quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States,” according to a National Park Service news release.
The Mexican-born Rivera (1886-1957) is widely recognized as a leading figure of 20th-Century art, and the Detroit murals are considered his most important work in America. Many scholars believe they are the finest work of his career.
While an honor for the DIA, the federal designation appears to have little more than symbolic value in the ongoing fight over the fate of the city-owned museum in Detroit’s historic bankruptcy. Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s current restructuring plan for the city protects the DIA from having to sell any art to pay city debt, but a number of creditors continue to push for a sale in court.
According to the National Park Service website, designation as a national landmark does not shield the property from ownership changes or prevent an owner from making any other changes they wish. However, if federal funding, licensing or permits are involved, then a review process must be completed to ensure the historic status is being given its due consideration.
The DIA had nothing to do with the murals achieving national historic status. Patty Henry, a historian with the National Historic Landmark Program in Washington, said that the murals were first identified for designation through a Park Service initiative that selected prominent potential historic sites related to Latino culture. Government officials then contacted the City of Detroit. In June 2012 — long before Detroit’s bankruptcy put the museum’s collection at risk — the City Council and Mayor Dave Bing approved a resolution endorsing the move to recognize the murals.
Designees are eligible to receive technical preservation advice. Federal agencies are also required to take into account any effects their activities may have on listed properties.
Rivera executed the murals depicting the city of Detroit’s manufacturing base and labor force on the four walls of the DIA’s Garden Court between July 1932 and March 1933. Edsel Ford and DIA director William Valentiner commissioned Rivera, paying him $25,000. The artist was given no restrictions other than that the murals should relate to the history of Detroit and its industry.
Though they are now beloved works inseparable not only from the DIA but the identity of Detroit, the finished murals were at first greeted with controversy from many corners: Some believed they were sacrilegious, blasphemous and pornographic; others objected to presumed references to Rivera’s Marxist politics.
Three other sites across the nation — the Adlai E. Stevenson II Farm in Mettawa, Ill.; the George Nakashima Woodworker Complex in Bucks County, Pa.; and the 1956 Grand Canyon TWA-United Airlines Aviation accident site in Arizona — also were selected as historic landmarks Wednesday.
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