With the future of Detroit's beloved art museum at risk, newly proposed legislation would theoretically protect it from creditors, were the cash-strapped city to go into Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. But the legislator responsible was also instrumental in creating a law that gives the city's emergency manager, who sparked speculation about liquidation of the Detroit Institute of Arts' assets, sweeping authority.
Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) introduced Senate Bill 401 this week. It would amend an existing state law to require an art institute to "adhere to the code of ethics for museums published by the American Alliance of Museums or a successor organization.”
Last week, the Detroit Free Press reported that state-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who is tasked with righting a city with more than $15 billion in debt and long-term liabilities, is having art works assessed at the DIA.
Orr and his spokesman Bill Nowling repeatedly insisted that there were no existing plans or intentions to sell DIA art, and its appraisal, along with that of other city assets, was merely a necessary step of "look[ing] at everything on the table." He also acknowledged creditors have the ability to "force the issue."
Earlier this week at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Snyder toed the same line, saying it was not a plan, but a technical possibility were the city to go into bankruptcy.
The possibility, however unlikely, of selling off paintings to pay down Detroit's debt provoked outrage from citizens, officials and those in the art world. The museum countered the EM's position, saying that they care for the collection in trust for the public.
"The DIA manages and cares for that collection according to exacting standards required by the public trust, our profession and the Operating Agreement with the City," the museum said in a statement last week. "The City cannot sell art to generate funds for any purpose other than to enhance the collection."
Richardville's amendment requires art museums to follow those standards, though it's unclear if the law would actually be able to protect the museum from creditors in the event of bankruptcy. The legislation will go to committee next week.
The move is somewhat surprising considering the senator's role in creating the legislation that gives the emergency managers expanded powers beyond those of city officials.
In November, voters repealed a law that allowed the governor to instate EMs with sweeping powers to end contracts, sell assets, cut spending and fire elected officials. Critics thought the law would "suppress democracy" and disenfranchise citizens. Some thought that an emergency manager would put quick fixes and the bottom line above residents and cities' long-term health.
That's similar to one the arguments against liquidating DIA assets -- though selling art could help close Detroit's deficit gap, some say the loss of one of Detroit's premier cultural institutions and major attractions would be destructive in the long term.
“They’re interested in making a healthy and viable Detroit,” DIA Director Graham W. J. Beal told The New York Times. “We believe that that kind of action -- diminishing our collection, the cultural value -- would not be in the long-term interest.”
Richardville put it more succinctly, speaking Thursday to the Detroit News at Mackinac.
"We can't let somebody take our best stuff away," he said.
When a referendum on an existing emergency manager law was put on the ballot last year, Richardville, working with colleagues in the state Senate, quickly put together a proposal to replace it. In December, a Republican majority easily passed the new legislation that, because it includes salary appropriations, is a spending bill and cannot be repealed.
Last year, Richardville told the Associated Press the emergency manager law is a necessity to help cities in financial straits.
"It's certainly a priority to make sure we help these communities out," he said. "We've had some real concerns that people in these communities could go without crucial services unless somebody was in there and given authority to fix things."
The museum is owned by the Detroit, though it is operated by a separate authority. Last year, the museum called for regional support to prevent closures and cuts. Voters in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb Counties approved a 10-year tax that is estimated to raise $23 million annually for the DIA.
In the Free Press, columnist Tom Walsh opined that it's only in the face of a possible DIA sell-off that many Michiganders have begun to understand the drastic, statewide consequences of Detroit's financial emergency.
You’d think by now that everybody in Michigan, from the poorest panhandler to the biggest billionaire, would know that virtually every city asset and contract is in play if and when Detroit runs out of money. But apparently many people think the things they care about -- be they garbage collection or Belle Isle access or a Van Gogh painting -- should be untouchable.
For years and years, as Detroit kept piling on debt to an unsustainable level of $16 billion, it was popular to blame the mess on mismanagement, intransigent labor unions, poor employee morale and assume those culprits would pay the price when the reckoning finally came.
But, gee, now it has suddenly dawned on the C-suite executives -- and their foundations that support the arts -- that some of their pet interests are endangered, too.