Image 7rivera court
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.

Follow Mark Garrison at @GarrisonMark