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Don’t loot the Detroit Institute of Arts to settle Detroit’s Debts – UPDATED

July 27, 2013
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Portrait of Postman Roulin, 1888. Oil on canvas: 25 1/4 x 18 7/8 in. (64.1 x 47.9 cm) Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Buhl Ford II Photo ©2013, Detroit Institute of Arts

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Portrait of Postman Roulin, 1888.
Oil on canvas: 25 1/4 x 18 7/8 in. (64.1 x 47.9 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Buhl Ford II
Photo ©2013, Detroit Institute of Arts

UPDATE 2 (August 5, 2013): Reuters reports the auction house Christie’s has been hired to appraise DIA’s collection.

UPDATE 1 (July 24, 2013): DIA’s Director has written a letter to the editor of the New YorK Times suggesting it’s a bit premature to go to cultural defcon 1:

From Detroit Museum’s Director: Too Soon to Panic

Re “The Death of a Museum” (Arts pages, July 24):

To compare the thriving Detroit Institute of Arts with the shuttered Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science and the existentially challenged South Street Seaport Museum is, to say the least, a stretch.

Thanks to the passage last year of a regional property tax that emphatically affirmed this institution’s value to our region, the D.I.A.’s financial situation is more secure than it has been for 40 years. Its successful and innovative reinstallation of the collections is widely regarded as a model for other museums. Our attendance is up 40 percent over last year.

Then along comes the announcement that Detroit’s emergency manager does not regard the D.I.A.’s collection (owned by the City of Detroit) as being immune from being treated as an asset in his attempt to solve Detroit’s overwhelming financial problems. Immediately, the situation is widely presented as an imminent threat to the integrity and very existence of the museum.

Little or no emphasis is given to the state attorney general’s opinion that, as an asset held in the public trust, the art collection is immune to sale for the purpose of settling debts.

True, any successful effort to liquidate D.I.A. art would precipitate a series of events likely to lead to its closing, but we are a very long way from actions that would “denude its prestigious collection of its most valuable artworks.” We believe that a healthy D.I.A. is, in fact, a crucial component in any recovery of the city of Detroit.

After two months of hectic coverage, I call upon journalists to resist the temptation to jump to disaster scenarios or to make the D.I.A.’s singular and highly complicated situation part of a broader story about the structural challenges faced by museums in general.

Director, Detroit Institute of Arts
Detroit, July 24, 2013

ORIGINAL POST:  As Detroit faces the onerous task of shedding $18 billions of debt, numerous ideas have been floated including selling off artwork at the Detroit Institute of Art, home of an encyclopedic collection said to be worth $2 billion.  This raises numerous ethical, legal and moral questions.  The New York Times editorial board has come out against the move – a position with which I agree and support.  Their remarks:

A visitor to the Detroit Institute of Arts can see some of the world’s greatest artworks. “The Wedding Dance,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s lusty rendering of a peasant’s celebration from the 1560s, is there. So is a self-portrait by a wary and anxious-looking Vincent van Gogh. There are treasures by Matisse, Rivera, Picasso and Calder, to name only a few in Detroit’s vast collection.

But plan a trip soon — this year, or maybe next. With debts hovering near $18 billion, Detroit has filed for bankruptcy protection, and the institute’s impressive collection of more than 60,000 works, worth at least $2 billion, is being eyed hungrily by the city’s many creditors. Christie’s auction house has sent two of its people to view the museum’s most valuable pieces.

The urge to sell — essentially to hock the family silver to pay the bills — is understandable. But selling the city’s art could be incredibly shortsighted; the long-term value of maintaining this valuable institution and its collection could easily outweigh any immediate gains. Quite apart from the damage it would do to morale, selling this trove would also be a violation of the public trust for the nearly 600,000 annual visitors, including 50,000 schoolchildren. And residents of three counties who agreed to a property tax increase to help finance the museum would almost certainly demand a rollback in the future.

This art should not be sold to some private investor who might hide it in the den or, worse, a Swiss warehouse. As Thomas Campbell, the chief executive and director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said, public art must be “a permanent, rather than a liquid, community asset.”

It is not clear yet whether Detroit’s officials will ultimately try to sell the collection. Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, has issued a strong opinion that the art can be sold only to acquire more art, not to retire public debt. But Bill Nowling, a spokesman for the city’s emergency manager overseeing the bankruptcy proceedings, said this week that although there are no specific plans to sell the art, all options “remain on the table.”

Selling the people’s art will not restore a battered city. It will only send more of its true assets elsewhere.

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