Detroit: Selling off the Museum?

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Detroit Institute of Arts
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Detroit’s filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection is the largest municipal bankruptcy ever. With the city facing $18 billion in debt and an army of creditors who have been asked to accept pennies on the dollar, the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, has made it clear that all the city’s assets are on the table. That may include the art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which — uniquely for a major comprehensive museum in America — belongs to the city, along with the building that houses it. The Detroit Free Press estimated that a group of the museum’s best-known works are worth $2.5 billion.

The possibility of selling the crown jewels of the collection has caused an uproar. Michigan’s Attorney General, Bill Schuette, issued an opinion in June that the art cannot be sold because it is held in the public trust, and a committee of the Michigan Senate approved a bill protecting the collection. But the force of these measures is unclear and may be decided in bankruptcy court. “The fact is the city of Detroit does not have a lot of assets that can be sold and realized to raise cash to offer these creditors,” says Mark Stryker of the Free Press, which is why many are worried that the DIA’s world-class collection may be cannibalized to appease the creditors.

But with Detroit residents waiting 58 minutes, on average, for police to respond to emergency calls, and the city’s retirees facing drastic cuts to their pensions, selling the art collection may be a necessary sacrifice during an impossibly difficult economic time.

“It comes back to this issue of what is a city,” Stryker tells Kurt Andersen. “Is a city just a place that turns on the lights and has a police force and has a water department? Or is a city a collection of cultural assets that form a locus of intellectual activity and creativity and aspiration and inspiration?” Stryker speculates that the sale of even a single painting would critically deter supporters from donating either art or money to the museum.

“A municipal bankruptcy of this size and scope has never happened before and dealing with an art museum with assets of this kind has never happened before,” Stryker says. “So we’re really in uncharted waters.”

→ What do you think? Should an art collection owned by the city be considered an asset for sale in bankruptcy proceedings? Tell us in a comment below.