In Detroit, a city on the brink of bankruptcy, any money-making idea is considered, no matter how wild.
That's why the seeming unlikely possibility of selling off Renoirs, van Goghs and other prized works from the collection of the world-class Detroit Institute of Arts in order to make some quick cash isn't dismissed. Instead, over the last day, it's been discussed, decried and determined by some to be not such a bad idea, though the museum argues that it can't and won't sell off its artworks.
A spokesman for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who was appointed to run the city by the governor this year in the midst of a severe financial emergency, told the Detroit Free Press Thursday the DIA must be considered as one of the city's assets. Spokesman Bill Nowling said some creditors had already asked if the collection was on the bargaining table.
“The creditors can really force the issue,” Nowling told the paper. “If you go into court, they can object and say, ‘Hey, I’m taking a huge haircut, and you’ve got a billion dollars' worth of art sitting over there.’"
Though there aren't existing plans to start selling off paintings, WXYZ reports Orr is having DIA works appraised in addition to other assets in the city.
"While there is no plan to sell any assets, it is possible that the city’s creditors could demand the city use its assets to settle its debts," read a statement released by Nowling. "The emergency manager has alerted certain assets, including the DIA, that they might face exposure to creditors should the city be forced to seek Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. This is a precautionary measure."
The museum has been run by a nonprofit authority for the last 15 years, but the city owns the building and collection. If an art sale became a reality, the museum's reputation would be compromised, likely hindering its ability to collect, host lauded traveling exhibitions or fundraise. It could also be subject to lawsuits from art donors.
According to the Detroit News, the DIA hired a lawyer for counsel on how best to protect the collection. In a statement Friday, the museum said it cannot sell art under standards required by the public trust:
The DIA strongly believes that the museum and the City hold the museum’s art 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. According to those standards, the City cannot sell art to generate funds for any purpose other than to enhance the collection. We remain confident that the City and the emergency financial manager will continue to support the museum in its compliance with those standards, and together we will continue to preserve and protect the cultural heritage of Detroit.
The museum's post on Facebook had more than 1,700 likes and 100 comments in an hour, with many outraged at the idea of selling the city's art.
"This proposal to sell the collection at the DIA is an attempt to vaporize our heritage, dissolve our legacy and liquidate our inheritance. It is short-sighted and shameful. It is an affront to the founders, the donors and the estates of the ancestors who built the collection," wrote commenter Ka Fields.
Part of the indignation appears to stem from a feeling that it's not just Detroit's treasure to give away. Last year, residents of the metro area's Wayne, Macomb and Oakland Counties voted in favor of a 10-year tax millage expected to raise $23 million after the museum said it was in danger of making cuts to staff and open hours without dollars from its suburban neighbors. Now, the museum is free to residents of all three counties.
Similar sentiments prevailed on Twitter, though there were others who thought it wasn't the worst plan Detroit's had yet. Story continues below.
In a mandated report to Michigan's Department of Treasury earlier this month, Orr found the city to be more than $14 billion in debt with a budget deficit that could top $380 million by July.
According to Crain's Detroit Business, a 2004 report put the collection's worth at over $1 billion. At the request of the Free Press, art dealers estimated the value of 38 significant pieces from the DIA's collection at $2.5 billion, with the caveat that, as works of this esteem don't often come up for sale, it's educated guessing.
While those masterpieces include works by the likes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Henri Matisse, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Albrecht Dürer, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso and thousands more spanning millennia, perhaps most iconic for the museum are the "Detroit Industry" frescoes that adorn the Rivera Court. Celebrating the city's workers and history of manufacturing, Diego Rivera's murals are literally part of the walls, and as fundamental to the museum as many seem to think the museum is to the city.
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