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Should Rembrandt, Van Gogh help bail out a bankrupt Detroit?

The future of the city-owned Detroit Institute of Arts — and the community's cultural soul — is at stake as debate rages on a possible sell-off of some of its treasures.

October 18, 2013|By Mark Caro
  • The Thinker, bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin on a stone pedestal outside the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum.
The Thinker, bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin on a stone pedestal outside… (Antonio Perez / Chicago…)

DETROIT — The Christie's appraisers enter on Mondays, when the museum is closed, and either inspect what's on the walls or ask to see some of the thousands of works not on display, sometimes sending Detroit Institute of Arts technicians on half-day missions to find pieces in deep storage and prepare them for examination.

People on the local cultural scene tend to think that it won't happen, that the city ultimately won't sell off some or all of this world-class art museum's collection to help cover the more than $18 billion in debt obligations cited in Detroit's recent bankruptcy filing.

Selling a Van Gogh, a Rembrandt, a Matisse — unthinkable, no? They wouldn't irreparably tarnish what may be Detroit's prime cultural gem just as the city is positioning itself to bounce back like its previously bankrupt car companies have done, would they?

"That's ludicrous. That's crazy," Antonio Agee, a graffiti artist who works under the name Shades, says while mingling with fellow artists and designers at the Detroit Design Festival's opening-night party in the former General Motors Research Laboratory, one of the city's many repurposed historic buildings. "The DIA is the best thing we've got. We can bounce back without selling art. People who say they're going to sell art don't believe in the city. I believe in the city."

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Yet starting in mid-September there they were, those visitors from Christie's, paid for with $200,000 of the broke city's money after Kevyn Orr, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder as the city's emergency manager in March, prompted Detroit's bankruptcy filing in July and announced in early August that he had hired the New York-based auction house to appraise the DIA's collection.

Such a sell-off would be unprecedented in the U.S. museum world, which operates under a code of ethics that allows the selling of artworks only for the purpose of buying more art. But then again, much of what's going on in U.S. history's largest municipal bankruptcy is unprecedented.

"There's really nothing to guide us," DIA Director Graham Beal says as he sits in the recently renovated Kresge Court, a former cafeteria and party room transformed into a lounge resembling a Tuscan courtyard. "This is all untested."

The DIA — unlike other major art museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art — is city owned. Detroit has given it little or no money in recent years, but no matter: The museum belongs to the city.

Many Detroiters would agree with that statement, that the museum belongs to the city, to them. The inscription above the DIA's grand entrance reads: "Dedicated by the People of Detroit to the Knowledge and Enjoyment of Art."

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Many residents of the surrounding suburban counties would contend that the DIA belongs to them as well. In August 2012, voters in Wayne (which includes Detroit), Oakland and Macomb counties approved a property tax to fund the DIA for 10 years — this at a time when the population had not proved particularly keen on voluntary tax increases. The millage is supplying $23 million of what Beal says is the museum's $31-million annual budget. Residents of those counties get free admission.

So the suggestion of selling artistic masterworks to pay off city debts is opening many cans of worms in Detroit and beyond. Even setting aside the will-they-or-won't-they proposition, some see danger in where this conversation is heading, with art pitted against city services and retirees' pensions, if not also the interests of municipal bondholders who made investments that went south.

Can art's value be measured in terms of what it would fetch at auction, or does it provide something far greater if less measurable to a community, particularly one desperately seeking a rebound? Is it appropriate to discuss art as a balance-sheet asset, or is this controversy yet another sign of a money-obsessed culture? Or in times like these, when a city can't afford to respond promptly to 911 calls or to keep more than 60% of its streetlights working at any one time, should everything be put on the table?

"The city must know the current value of all its assets, including the city-owned collection at the DIA," Orr said in a statement upon announcing the museum appraisals. "There has never been, nor is there now, any plan to sell art. This valuation, as well as the valuation of other city assets, is an integral part of the restructuring process."

"Kevyn Orr has said he doesn't want to sell the art," Beal says, "which is not the same as saying, 'I'm not going to.'"

True enough. On Oct. 3, Orr told the Detroit Economic Club that the DIA had to figure out a way to leverage money out of its collection. "I'm deferring to them to save themselves," the Detroit Free Press quoted Orr as saying, "but if they don't, I'll take them up."

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