Frida and Diego in Detroit: The Story of a Couple, a City, and an Art Legacy Almost Lost

“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” tells the story of these two Mexican artists, of Detroit as an industrial powerhouse in decline, and a museum’s tangled relationship with the city’s finances and politics.

The exhibit’s artwork – which features 70 paintings, drawings and murals the couple created during their 11-month stay in Motown from 1932 to 1933 – almost sold at an auction in 2014 to pay off the city’s crippling debt.

“The collection was threatened when the city went bankrupt because it was technically owned by the city of Detroit,” explains Graham Beal, Director of the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

City officials were pushing for Detroit to sell all of the artwork housed at the DIA to the highest bidder.

According to Beal, the public favored the museum over the pensions, because selling the collection would mean the DIA would have to close down its doors.

After 20 months of negotiating, which predicted an imminent closing of the DIA, a deal was brokered to sell the entire collection to the museum, including the Rivera and Kahlo works, in exchange for $100 million dollars to bolster Detroit’s public employee pensions.

The move allowed the museum to regain the independence of its collections and provided the city quick cash.

“To know the museum is secure and to do it with an exhibition about passion for people and for one another is profoundly satisfying,” said Beal.

The exhibition is a glimpse into the couple’s universe in the 1930s. Rivera at the pinnacle of his career, Frida as a young artist finding her artistic identity. It was after Detroit that Frida put herself at the center of her work in self-portraits expressing how the outside world affected her internally.

Kahlo and Rivera had very different, and almost paradoxical, experiences of Detroit. Rivera was fascinated by the magnitude of the auto industry and committed to paying homage to Detroit’s laborers working at Ford Motor Company. Frida disliked the city and would often take trips to New York in search of inspiration. She also suffered a miscarriage there, affecting the time she could focus on her craft.

Rivera would leave Detroit having accomplished his most renowned works. Frida would return to Mexico to flourish as an artist – maturing her fused vision of Surrealism and Mexican folk art to become la mera mera.

“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” not only brings to light important turns in the artists’ careers but also the fate of Detroit as a city.

The exhibition, which takes an intimate look at Rivera’s murals celebrating the city as the worldwide engine for auto manufacturing, is also a stark contrast to today’s Detroit.

Birches Growing In Decayed Books, from Detroit Disassembled (2010). Andrew Moore
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The Motor City reached its population peak of 1.8 million in 1950, but after years of economic decline and job loss, urban decay, and suburbanization, the city now has less than 40 percent of that number at just over 700,000 residents.

“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” is a story about the rise and fall of Detroit’s economy itself. The city, at the height of its economic glory, could afford to commission the most renowned muralist of the time. Today, as it struggles to stay afloat with its finances, it is forced to pawn off its last precious jewels for quick cash to cover its basic expenses. Like a broke, old-moneyed family taking their last inherited treasures to a pawnshop.

“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” is on view through July 12 at the Detroit Institute of Arts;