Detroit could become the first American city to force a major museum to sell its art because of dire financial straits that are pushing the municipality toward bankruptcy.
Pamela Marcil, public relations director for the Detroit Institute of Arts, confirmed to WND that “the situation is unprecedented.”
The sale of Detroit’s art could be seen as a tragic and powerful symbol of the city’s political corruption and cultural collapse.
It’s not often that mismanagement and debt force a government to sell off precious cultural resources. However, Detroit could soon join the likes of Greece, as the Motor City may need to sell public museum art to private buyers in bankruptcy sales.
Greeks were outraged in 2010 when a German banker suggested that the indebted nation should sell off islands and other cherished artifacts, but Greece is now selling palaces, islands, and royal estates.
Likewise, some Detroit residents are furious at the idea of selling art.
“It’s unspeakable,” said retired Detroit public school teacher Margot Tucker. “The art belongs to all of us, even if the city technically owns it.”
However, the point of bankruptcy law is that if the city owns it, then the city can sell it.
“Technical ownership is legal ownership, and the legal owner has the right to dispose of his/her/its assets in bankruptcy,” Wayne State University bankruptcy law professor Laura Beth Bartell noted.
Bankruptcy expert John Pottow, a professor at University of Michigan Law School, said, “[U]nless the artwork is in some sort of trust it would go into the bankruptcy estate and be subject to sale.”
The state-appointed emergency financial manager, Kevyn Orr, will have the ultimate authority on that decision.
“He might say we need to raise some cash to help meet our pension and bond obligations, or he might say I’m not liquidating these [cultural] assets because they’re too important to Detroit’s long-term financial viability,” Pottow said.
With pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh and Rembrandt, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is renowned as one of America’s finest museums. Yet, if Orr is unable to save Detroit from bankruptcy, the emergency management expert has stated, “We have to look at everything on the table.”
That includes prize paintings and other exhibits at the DIA.
In addition to being unprecedented, it may be a violation of professional museum ethics for Detroit to sell off art to help cover the city’s debts.
Experts at the American Alliance for Museums told WND it would violate the code of museum professional ethics to sell artwork for any reason aside from acquisition or care of the artwork.
“Should the city force the DIA to sell all or parts of the collection, it would obviously violate the standards of the museum field,” said Dewey Blanton of the American Alliance of Museums.
Blanton said, “If Detroit is to ever regain its status as one of America’s great cultural communities, the DIA will be an essential part of that, attracting businesses, cultural tourists and enhancing the overall quality of life.”
The Detroit Institute of Arts claims that the museum’s art collection is held “in trust for the public” and that “the city cannot sell art to generate funds for any purpose other than to enhance the collection.”
DIA has brushed with financial fate before. The city of Detroit and state of Michigan stopped funding the museum and without a new source of funding, the museum warned last year, “the result will be a dramatic gutting of hours and public programs that would transform the DIA into a mere warehouse for art within a year or two.”
The DIA’s director, knowing that the city and state would be of no help financially, turned to the predominantly white suburban counties of Oakland and Macomb to ask for their financial support. The DIA also turned to majority white Wayne County, which includes the city of Detroit.
The museum reached out to the suburbs because that is where many of its patrons live. Wayne County, which includes Detroit, has a population of 1.8 million, and provided 34 percent of DIA attendees in 2011-12. Oakland County, with a much smaller population (1.2 million) than Wayne County, provided an almost equal share of museum attendees.
One report in the 1990s showed that 88 percent of visitors to the museum were white, while just 9 percent were black, despite the fact that Detroit is 83 percent black.
Thus, DIA turned to the suburbs for an increase in their property tax called a “millage” tax. This approach raised an important question: “[H]ow do you get suburban taxpayers to pony up in support of a museum located in the heart of a city on which most of them long ago turned their backs?” asked Terry Teachout.
The DIA’s approach was to offer an incentive: Voters from any county that passed the millage increase would be granted free admission to the museum.
In 2012, voters of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb voted in favor of the millage tax, which will provide up to $23 million over the next 10 years, amounting to 91 percent of DIA’s operating budget.
Having just recently corrected their fiscal trajectory through future-oriented planning, the DIA now faces the potential loss of its chief assets. Detroit, which no longer supports the museum financially, now threatens DIA with the forced sale of museum art to subsidize the city’s legacy of improvidence.