Detroit mulls auctioning art masterpieces to pay debt

A Diego Rivera fresco inside the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Outrage is spreading in the art community over news that bankrupt Detroit may consider selling masterworks from the city’s art museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts. Struggling to pay the city's $15 billion debt, Detroit's emergency manager wants the collection appraised.

Rodin, Rembrandt, Matisse, Picasso -- great works from every era are in the museum, which says they must stay.

“We hold this collection in the public trust,” says Annmarie Erickson, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the museum. “You don’t use something held in the public trust as an asset.”

It may not be legal to sell. The city owns the museum’s collection and building, but a non-profit operates it. Erickson says the agreement with the city allows works to be sold only to acquire new art, not pay bills. That’s pretty standard museum ethics.

Professional guidelines from the Association of Art Museum Directors say money from any sale of art in the collection “shall not be used for operations or capital expenses . . . only for the acquisition of works of art.”

But these are desperate times for Detroit, so hard choices are unavoidable. Bankruptcy attorney Jim Spiotto isn’t involved with this case, but he has represented other struggling cities and their creditors. He can imagine what Detroit is thinking.

“It is great to have a terrific museum and art,” Spiotto says. “That is not as important as having good educational programs, infrastructure and public safety.”

The museum says art and culture are important too. A Detroit native, Erickson says, “I stayed in this city to work in the museum and I firmly believe that this museum is an incredible benefit to the city.”

But for a city in deep trouble, even the unthinkable could be possible.

Mark Garrison: Rodin and Rembrandt, Matisse and Picasso. The museum has great works from every era, potentially worth billions. Executive vice president Annmarie Erickson says they must stay.

Annmarie Erickson: We hold this collection in the public trust. And you don’t use something held in the public trust as an asset.

She says the agreement with the city says art can only be sold to acquire new works, not pay bills. That’s pretty standard museum ethics. But these are desperate times. Attorney Jim Spiotto has represented other struggling cities and can imagine what Detroit is thinking.

Jim Spiotto: It is great to have a terrific museum and art. That is not as important as having good educational programs, infrastructure and public safety.

The museum says art and culture are important too.

Erickson: I was born and raised in Detroit and I stayed in this city to work in this museum and I firmly believe that this museum is an incredible benefit to the city.

But for a city $15 billion in debt, even the unthinkable is possible. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...