Detroit: Selling off the Museum?


Friday, July 26, 2013

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.

Comments [29]

David Spiel

See The New Video: Save Our Art: … … … … … Save The Detroit Institute of Arts!

Dec. 05 2013 02:16 PM
Blake from San Francisco

I feel for those who could lose their pensions, but selling the art will not restore these ... it will go to whoever has the best high priced attorneys and you could sell all the art, Belle Isle and everything else, as far as I'm concerned and still fail to get Detroit back on it's feet. I left the burbs of Detroit in 1977 and never came back, except to visit family because there was no economic promise ... in those ensuing years the country faced at least two energy crisis and despite that the auto industry continued to produce gas guzzling monsters and created the disaster we see ... there hasn't been any vision or foresight in the State of Michigan since the 1960s and I find it amazing that while many other major cities that experienced the same White Flight in the late 1950s and 1960s now, in many instances, are the hottest places to live, but that will not happen for years because of the racial climate in Michigan. How do I know ... I just got back from a trip here to visit my family and after being gone for almost 40 years I have to say the racism I encountered was appalling and the only reason people flock downtown is for the boozy art/neighborhood feasts and to gamble their lives away in the casinos ... WHAT A MESS and it's sad because Detroit was something to see in the early 1960s ... now it burnt and abandoned homes in desolate landscapes but it certainly is a reflection of how people view others who are different from them ... what a startling landscape!

Oct. 01 2013 01:16 AM
Valetta from Philadelphia

I'm trying to catch up with e-mails today and so, I've had a chance to read many cogent comments about Detroit's Art Museum. It is so sad that a city government thinks it has to divest of the treasures that make their city great. It never occured to me that the Art Museum of Philadelphia or the Delaware Art Museum in my area could ever be in danger of closing because someone voted to sell everything to pay for necessities that should be paid for by our taxes. There have been several creative solutions posted. Detroit, pay attention.

Sep. 12 2013 04:13 PM
Kendra from Give Grace to Oklahoma City Trolley Pace and Life style.

Possibly rent out for a traveling art exhibit that helps funds back to the city. Explain the story, the need and add photography of the city and artist's of the visiting city also support life in their city. Do something with it and the cities story. Get with orgs. Like Build a Better Block. Some spending may take place and some comes from the city's citizens.

Aug. 04 2013 10:44 AM
S from NY

All of you who want to keep the art please state where is Detroit going to get 20 Billion dollars? Should they sell the zoo or the animals in the zoo? Should they sell Belle Isle to become a gated community? Sell the Detroit Library? Heart Plaza for an office building? What does the city of Detroit have that is worth any money? My heart is sad that selling the art is even being considered but, what else is there that can generate any money? I am hard pressed to think of anything that can generate the money needed to stabilize the city. In fact, I find it hard to believe that the DIA was still owned by the city. Couldn't the museum see the writing on the wall. I am wondering if the art was listed as collateral for Detroit to get the loans in the first place. Kurt can you investigate this and can you do a program that examines the other possibilities to raise the 20 Billion. What are the choices??? Should the city build another casino?
Thank you WNYC for another thought provoking program!

Aug. 03 2013 12:20 AM
Bill Freer from Albuquerqu

The art of a city is existentially different from a street lamp for instance, or a bus. It is the soul of a city, a promise for donors, a deep breath for those who are surrounded by blight. Art is a garden that does not belong to a city but to the people who live there today and who may live there tomorrow.

Aug. 02 2013 11:37 PM
Matthew Campbell from Fort Worth, TX

As a student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit many of my non art classes were at Wayne State. The Detroit Institute of Arts was between the 2 schools and I would cut through the DIA to get to Wayne State. I cannot tell you how much it meant to me as an art student to be inspired by The DIA's collection.

Detroit has lost so much. There is something to say for paying the bills but how much more of Detroit's soul must be lost.

Aug. 02 2013 11:36 AM
Stephen R. Stapleton from Sacramento, CA

I see the majority of the comments here are for Detroit to keep its art. Some of the suggestions show a complete lack of understanding about who owns what (the sports teams, for example, belong to private parties and cannot be sold by the city to pay its bills any more than I can sell your house to pay mine), a shocking lack of humanity, and a disregard for the real hard choices that must be made.

If one pensioner must take one dollar less than he is owed, the art should be sold. The idea this artwork -- which is not being destroyed, just moved -- is more valuable or important than the very real people who worked hard for decades to earn a pension is monstrous. The artwork will not be lost for humanity, but real humans will suffer if their pensions are lost.

Detroit should sell whatever is necessary -- down to the last farthing as the old Lloyd's of London saying goes -- to meet its obligations to the creditors. If that means selling the sidewalks, parks, artwork, libraries and the books, then sell.

Aug. 01 2013 08:07 PM
Harriet R. Barry from Brooklyn, New York

It is Detroit's heritage -

Aug. 01 2013 10:16 AM
Gary Allen Gardner from Traverse City, Michigan

How about selling a big chunk of those major pieces, to other interested museums or collectors, with a repurchase option in the sale contract? That frees up some cash to work with, and leaves hope open to recovering those masterpieces when the City of Detroit regains its feet.

Aug. 01 2013 09:18 AM
Phyllis from Brooklyn, NY

I recently wrote this letter to the curatorial staff of DIA upon returning from my first visit to the collection.


My husband and I just returned from a Midwestern trip.
I had long dreamed about visiting DIA to see the Diego Rivera murals.
I have represented the estate of a WPA artist for many years. Leon Bibel had worked on several murals in the San Francisco area in the mid-1930s. He was Bernard Zakheim's assistant. Zakheim had been Diego Rivera's assistant.

So, although we didn't have a lot of time, we arrived early in the morning and headed straight to the murals...for Diego and Diego's connection to Leon, an artist we knew very well.

It was a transcendent and completely memorable experience.

But, although we tried to leave, we absolutely could not!
Gallery after gallery was so magnificent, so beautifully laid out, so full of worthy information, with artwork so perfectly presented...we stayed until the moment of closing...and desperately wanted to see more.
I am a lifelong New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn.
Even our BOROUGH has a world class museum.

Yet, DIA was simply and unequivocally the very BEST museum experience I have ever had.
I had tears of joy at the quality all around me. Nothing suffered from over-restoration or questionable curation. Perfection!

Everything was as sublime as it could be.
Even the cafeteria! People were lovely, the meals delicious and reasonable...and they gave us the stamina to continue.

The docents were lovely, the guards were knowledgeable.

I just wish that we could have stayed longer, but we had an important event in Yellow Springs, Ohio and needed to be there the day after DIA.
I just needed you to know that we both think that DIA is an amazing institution.
Any further mention of selling off the collection by Republican operatives and we will join you in any protest to prevent that insane notion from happening.
I heard a report on our NPR station about that and was devastated by such idiocy.


Jul. 31 2013 07:40 PM

Detroit has new building & investment in the center city, & the metro area has a wealth of resources. Studies show that having well educated professionals is good for cities' economic vitality, & for low income residents. Having a strong arts sector helps attract professionals.

Government investment in arts gets about $7 return per dollar; & investing in the arts is a better option than spending on sports stadiums. So it would be better for Detroit to keep the DIA & let the Red Wings pay for a new stadium.

There is a strong argument that the city holds the art in trust. Yet, the city also has a responsibility to its citizens to provide public services, & to fulfill promises made to retired employees.

Hopefully, the private sector, public sector, & people of Detroit will be able to find creative solutions here. Detroit is a big city covering a lot of acres. People have already done creative things such as replacing abandoned housing with urban gardens & parks. The city can’t create a strong public transit system quickly, but it could provide transit that gets unemployed city residents to suburbs low skill jobs are available.

There are also creative ways to use the DIA’s resources. Sell or keep are not the only choices. Some works could be rented out on long term leases to other museums or private collectors. While pieces are rented out, reproductions could appear in their place; that's not the same as an original, but visitors can still enjoy and learn.

From the DIA website, it appears that the Institute is not currently able to offer many educational programs for schools, though it’s likely that most of the poor, minority children in the Detroit schools do not visit the DIA often. I suspect that the city, already faced with balancing the financial and safety needs of citizens & retired employees against the value of the DIA, also has to deal with the fact that the current constituents of the DIA are different socioeconomic group from the citizens and retirees.

Because of this, it would be good if the DIA could not only let its art be used to help the city through the bankruptcy, but also use this crisis as impetus to get more arts education into the Detroit schools & to grow a lively arts community that involves a wide range of Detroit citizens. Maybe gallery space vacated by rented out works could be used to exhibit work by local artists & students. Maybe some of DIA’s facilities could become an arts center, visited regularly by children from local schools.

Detroit is recovering economically; and the bankruptcy could spur the city to use arts to fuel that recovery. In both New York and Washington DC, which went through similar financial crises, the arts now play an important role in the economic strength & appeal of the cities.

In DC, the city government stepped up to fill a gap of millions of dollars when federal support to local institutions dropped. DC is using the arts to spur renewal in what were deteriorated neighborhoods.

Jul. 30 2013 10:44 PM

This is what I posted in The Economist site:

You statement that "The Detroit Institute of Arts has a fine collection of old masters"...and..."The old would no doubt rather have a pension than a place to gaze at oil paintings" is a preposterous barbarism. The city of Detroit might hold the deed, but the Institute, as a world-class museum, is a patrimony of humanity. Why don't we then sell the Temple of the Parthenon to help with the Greek budget crisis? I am sure many a wealthy billionaire would very much like to transfer it stone by stone to his private estate. We could also sell him the Elgin marbles at the British Museum for an even more gratifying reconstruction and to also help with the budget woes of the UK. And while we are at it, why not liquidate some non-British pieces at the National Gallery in London, such as Miguelangelo, Velasquez and Monet paintings?

Jul. 30 2013 07:58 PM

It is an outrage to even consider stripping the Detroit Institute of Arts of its artistic patrimony to satisfy creditors. Second, the choice between pensioners and art is a false choice that is partly fed by American anti-intellectualism. What we have here is a classic case of the party framing the question controlling the discussion, thereby distracting us from the underlying realities and directing us to discuss a false "choice" between the pensioners and the art. Dig deeper! Don't buy into the false choice. And, by the way, the governor is finding $350 Million to build a hockey stadium in Detroit!

Jul. 30 2013 03:33 PM
Pat Pollock from NYC

Dear Kurt,
I'm originally from just outside Detroit (St. Clair Shores) and have over the years frequented the treasure that is the Detroit Institute of Art.. It is heart-rending to think they may be sold: the Brueghel, the Wedding Dance, The Riemenschneider wood carving from 16th century, the frescos of Diego Rivera, the storm painting in a churchyard that was an early favorite of mine, actually A Jewish Cemetery Jacob Van Riesdale. The entire museum is so lovely and intimate compared, for example, with our Metropolitan Museum. I feel sad for Detroit. An early recollection of Detroit is riding the streetcar as a 3 or 4-year old whose floor seemed to be sliding back & forth. Losing Pennsylvania Station was also painful, I was here by then, but losing its great art treasures is akin to losing one's children. There are communities in Detroit among the richest in the world: Grosse Pointe, Bloomfield Hills among them. How can they let that happen to the Detroit Art Museum and to Detroit. Kurt, perhaps you also are from the Detroit area. I think Joyce Carol Oates is. She wrote the wonderful book "Them" about 1968, the time of the race riots and the beginning of the end of Detroit. It's art works surpass those of the Getty because they were acquired earlier. It would never again be the same if it has to sell them. DIA is the 5th largest museum in US. Thanks, Kurt, for letting us have our say. I enjoy your program very much. Pat Pollock (& pay my monthly dues).

Jul. 30 2013 01:12 PM
Mason from NYC

DIA's collection is a part of the City of Detroit's patrimony. The notion that it should be up for sale sounds more like the history of Germany and the Nazis than a democracy. Government should leave their hands off of the art collection.

Jul. 29 2013 08:18 PM
Rose Lupo from Orlando FL

I'm from Detroit, born and raised.

HANDS off the DIA! Some of the treasures of the DIA are built right into the walls, as grottos, etc.

Why should art be sacrificed for city mismanagement? Go after the corruption.

Set Detroit as a TAX FREE business zone to stimulate business. Turn dilapidated areas into farm zones.

Whatever must be done, except to reach into the DIA. The total worth of the DIA at a few billion dollars still does not solve the ENTIRE problem, it will just leave the city with one less asset.
What does it matter if someone (someplace) is only $9 billion in debt, and not $12 billion?

Once they reach in and take something from the DIA, it is the end.

Here's a general rule, it goes for this as it does for a cheating spouse.

"The second time is a bit easier"

Jul. 29 2013 12:12 PM
Scott from Brooklyn

I was born in Detroit and grew up in the suburbs before moving to NYC. I like going to the DIA and enjoy the art that they have but, with two parents on a fixed income I can see what the loss a pension could do to them. For the record they do not get a pension from Detroit. I think sell the art that is not from the region and sell the museum building to a newly created non profit like WNYC. To me the art does not reflect the city or it’s people. I often went in the past and still go (when I am in town) to Windsor, the Canadian city south of Detroit, to visit their art museum. They have a wonderful museum. It doesn’t have any Picassos or Rembrants or any other famous european art work. They have Canadian art that reflects the Canadian experience. It is refreshing and inspiring and informs me why Canada is such a wonderful Country. Their collection is something I will not find in New York or London or anywhere else except Canada. I think fill the museum with art and objects that relate to Michigan. Tell the story of Michigan and it’s people through art. It will not be destroying the museum but just redefining the mission to be more about the local area. A good portion of the metro areas people never step in to the place because it doesn’t speak to them. This might just do that and it may draw people from other places to see something new.

You did not mention the mint collection of automobiles that could be sold as well. I would hope wealthy auto executives or the automobile companies themselves would purchase the cars and then establish a non profit and open a museum to house them. The autos have a direct connection to the city. They are special to that area and its people. No other city in America can call it self the motor city. How come Detroit doesn’t have an automotive museum? That only focuses on how the automobile shaped the city and its people. That would be something people would go out of their way to see.

Come on Detroit get creative this is your moment to remake your self for the future. It cannot stay the same.

Jul. 28 2013 11:26 PM
Sara from Seattle

No, no, no. The art must not be sold. Trevor from Minneapolis (which also has a beautiful collection) is absolutely correct in saying that to do so would be “destroying the city in order to save it.”

To think the country would stand by and watch this happen, the rape of a city’s cultural treasure, like the selling off piece by piece of a starving man’s clothes. It’s wrong and those who shrug and say it’s a shame but a necessity either are not thinking properly about the magnitude of this loss (probably they don’t know the DIA collection, which is awesome and priceless) to an already abased city, or they are pragmatic to the point of being callous.

I’m not from Detroit, though I’ve been to the DIA. Still, I’d contribute to a fund to save the museum. I hope someone quicker and savvier than I will start one so that I and Joanee from Tennessee can give.

Jul. 28 2013 11:00 PM
Shirley McRae from Port Townsend, WA

Rather than selling the art in the DIA, why not sell the Detroit Tigers or the Detroit Red Wings. Are these not major assets associated with Detroit? Else why call them "Detroit."

Jul. 28 2013 10:29 PM
Theo from NorthWest

This is more an example of Detroit's failings than raising a bigger question. Most museums of note are legally independent non-profits and are thus protected from the foibles of their 'host' cities. Detroit should have taken this direction decades ago.

Since we do live under the rule of law, the assets are assets available to pay Detroit's obligations. I would expect and hope the art will be purchased by other museums and thus remain available to the public (just not Detroit's).

Jul. 28 2013 10:29 PM
Mike from Cleveland

Kurt's commentary was remiss in not stating the strong argument that the art is held *in trust* by the city on behalf of Detroit's people -- this argument was made by the Michigan attorney general in an offical brief. Potentially, another entity -- say a Gates or Buffett, or the federal government -- could perhaps buy the collection and hold it in trust.

Jul. 28 2013 06:46 PM
Joanee from TN

I'm nearing 70, but I will never forget the feeling of walking into the DIA. The works of art are astounding, the feeling wholly holy. Although I no longer live in Detroit, my heart will always be there. When I heard the sad news about the city I couldn't help but think that if Dave Bing would set up an account that I could donate to I would. There are many of us who feel that way. Most of us didn't leave because we wanted to.

Jul. 28 2013 11:55 AM
Tom Crisp from UWS

Use this moment to advertise the art collection and museum as one of the reasons business should invest in this city. Detroit has so many of the things people supposedly want in a city - the pro sports teams, for instance. They need to take the focus off the problems, and put it on the assets. Sell the city, don't sell it out.

Jul. 28 2013 11:25 AM
Tom Crisp from UWS

Selling the art has to be on the table because it is an asset of the city. That's indisputable. But it should come late in the sale, so as to avoid it if possible.

If Detroit were a business, it would be a very attractive buy: it's loaded with infrastructure and, as it has experienced flight and property foreclosures, etc, it's loaded with cheap space. Detroit is an opportunity. It could become America's 21st century city. Create a great swath of parklands on some of the empty stretches of property. Locate business and manufacturing and other pieces. Offer 20 or 30 yr property tax abatements for rescuing and renovating residential housing (it was done in the 70s in NYC and worked.)

Sell the art as a last resort. Rent it first, to corporations, or to wealthy art lovers who would like to live with an incredible piece for 6 months or a year.

Obviously the city might have sold their art to the museum corporation before it came to this - as NYC sold WNYC to the not-for-profit that operates it.

Jul. 28 2013 11:23 AM
Trevor from Minneapolis

The value of an art museum selling off its art can be debated like the value of torture can be debated, but it is destroying the town to save it. There is no getting past the qualitative loss involved in gutting the town's soul for a set portion of financial security. Should Washington DC consider selling the Lincoln Memorial if it is ever in a tough spot?

Jul. 27 2013 10:27 PM
Moe from Pa

For being passionate educated people on both sides of the argument they are not very creative. Why not lease the art out to the various gallery's and museums around the country and around the world as is done with so many collections? The city would retain ownership and create a revenue stream. I guess it's easier to call the barristers and spend even more money that you don' t have.

Jul. 27 2013 03:30 PM
David from Washington, DC

just heard about Detroit Museum and city bankruptcy on PBS. Shld Museum works, since owned by city, be sold? awful decision. probably yes. "One hungry man is worth a thousand classical statues." not sure who said that. Shelley? My heart goes out to Detroit and to the Museum.

Jul. 27 2013 02:17 PM
Judith Williams from New Mexico

The Detroit Museum of Art is a magnificent place. It is an outrage to think that this crisis (part real, part induced)is an excuse for privatizing everything (water, sewer, public lands etc) and selling off works of art that were donated to the CITY OF DETROIT, not to rich collectors and corporations.

Privatization should be done only after careful analysis and assessment of community will, not as part of a scheme to give things to corporations at below market rates and to do all this on the backs of the working people (middle class and low-income). Find other ways to raise revenue.

Is the goal here to save a city or destroy it? Where is the true leadership?

Jul. 26 2013 06:15 PM

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