Detroit art sale: Museum ready to fight

The Detroit Art Institute, with Rodin's "The Thinker" outside.

As Detroit tries to maneuver through the process of declaring bankruptcy, one part of the city has gotten particular attention: The Detroit Institute of ArtsThis week, the city made a formal agreement with Christie's to try to put a dollar value on some of the museum's collection. Christie's will reportedly receive $200,000 for their services.

Kevyn Orr, the state-appointed emergency manager of the city, has said that the appraisal is merely to get a ballpark figure on the worth of the city's properties, and that the art collection will not be sold.

"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," he said in a statement.

Some estimates say the collection could be worth as much as $3 billion, a fraction of the $18 billion hole the city is in. But that price tag doesn't really show the full impact of the art on the community and the city.

"We regard these works of art as priceless," says Graham Beale is the director of the DIA. "We like their cultural value. All of this talk about dollar signs means that's what people see when they look at works of art."

"I strongly believe, and others strongly believe, that the works of art are held in public trust and that they are not there to be sold," Beale adds. "The problems that we have here in Detroit have been decades in the making. The DIA and its collection has had nothing to do with those problems -- in fact, we've been rather a success story."

Pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh and Rodin, among others, are included in the collection. The museum building and the art inside are both owned by the city of Detroit, while the operations are run by a separate non-profit. Last year, residents of three counties in the area voted in favor of a tax to support the museum going forward.

"If this evaluation moves to actual sale, the ultimate loser will be the future of the city of Detroit," says Beale.  "If works of art are sold by anybody, that breaks the operating agreement -- then that money ceases to come from the three counties, then the DIA will effectively be closed down."

Short of outright sale, some are also talking about other ways to leverage the collection to help the city out of debt.

"The idea of alternatives are thrown out: The idea that we could rent collections out to somewhere else in the world; the suggestion that wealthy individuals could buy them from the city of Detroit and then give them to the DIA," explains Beale. "Well, that's nice but I think it's a bit of a fairy tale."

Still, it is important not to ring the alarms quite yet. Beale has promised to fight the city in court if the art actually ends up on the chopping block -- but that seems unlikely as of now. "We will do everything legally we possibly can if we head in that direction -- and I really don't believe we will," he says.

About the author

Lizzie O'Leary is the new host of Marketplace Weekend.

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