Press-Republican

Community News Network

December 9, 2013

Should Detroit sell its priceless art to pay the bills?

— Like a mournful soul tune, news from Detroit seems to get worse with each verse. The latest is deeply dispiriting: The city may have to sell the artwork off the walls.

A federal judge ruled Dec. 3 that Detroit met the conditions for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Now a question that's been simmering for months is coming to a boil: Should the Detroit Institute of Arts -  one of the country's finest art museums and perhaps the city's greatest cultural asset -  sell some or all of its collection to satisfy creditors?

It's a vexing question, but the answer is no. Not because the city isn't desperate for cash (it is), or because selling its Van Goghs and Picassos wouldn't raise a lot of money (it would). The best reason is that the art's ultimate owners, the taxpayers of greater Detroit, don't want to -  and the city's most profound challenge is how to reinvent itself as a place where people actually want to live and work.

Detroit may yet be able to avoid this dreadful outcome. A federal mediator is overseeing negotiations with philanthropic groups to spin off the institute -  which is owned by the city but receives no money from it -  in return for donations totaling $500 million or so. But there's no guarantee the talks will succeed.

So the grim accounting of Detroit's civic jewels proceeds. Christie's estimates that the roughly 2,800 artworks the city could feasibly sell might fetch from $452 million to $866 million. Such a one-time cash infusion could alleviate some of the city's innumerable woes, from a $3.5 billion pension shortfall to deteriorating public services. But Detroit's underlying problems -  a shrinking population, economic stagnation, poor governance -  would remain. So would most of the city's $18 billion in long-term debt.

The harder and more important question is whether the proceeds gained from selling the collection would be more valuable to the city than the museum itself.

And what is the museum's value? Well, it drew 594,267 visitors in the last fiscal year. It spends millions locally each year on goods and services, lures tourists and their money, provides jobs and education, and so on.

But these are insufficient metrics. A great art collection provides social and cultural benefits that don't fit well in spreadsheets. It helps make a city someplace where people want to buy homes and do business. It concentrates creativity and boosts innovative potential. And it expresses some important civic principles -  for instance, that a city should be something more than a group of citizens with the same ZIP code, and that art, as a demonstration of human excellence, is inherently ennobling.

The region's voters -  who haven't been consulted on very much lately -  effectively ratified this idea in 2012, when they approved a property-tax increase on themselves to ensure the Detroit Institute of Arts remained financially viable. The tax supports about two-thirds of the museum's budget, or about $23 million a year. Selling the art would probably abrogate this tax and thus vitiate the institute's finances. It would also violate voters' expressed wishes.

 Is there another way out?

Those negotiations with philanthropic groups are encouraging. And the judge overseeing the bankruptcy warned that selling the art only "delays the inevitable." The city's emergency manager, meanwhile, has said only that he would "like to find a way to monetize the DIA."

There are several ways of doing so that don't require gutting the collection. Christie's suggested using some of the artworks as collateral to obtain a long-term loan; creating partnerships with other museums to lease significant works or pre-packaged exhibitions; transferring art to a "masterpiece trust," in which other museums could purchase ownership shares; and selling exceptional items to philanthropists who would agree to permanently lend them back to the museum.

None of these would go very far toward resolving Detroit's budget problems. But the real question facing the city, in this instance, is more existential than fiscal. It's whether Detroit, in the future, will remain a city in any proper sense of the term -  a place where civic responsibilities are met, democratic wishes are respected, and cultural treasures are preserved for future generations.

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Community News Network
  • Why a see-through mouse is a big deal for scientists

    A group of Caltech researchers announced in Cell Thursday their success in making an entire organism transparent. Unfortunately, this isn't any kind of "Invisible Man" scenario: The organism in question is a mouse, and the mouse in question is quite dead.

    July 31, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 2.12.55 PM.png VIDEO: Five-year-old doesn't want her brother to grow up

    Sadie, an adorable 5-year-old from Phoenix, wants her brother to stay young forever, so much so that her emotional reaction to the thought of him getting older has drawn more than 10 million views on YouTube.

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • lockport-police.jpg Police department turns to Facebook for guidance on use of 'negro'

    What seems to be a data entry mistake by a small town police department in western New York has turned into a social media firestorm centered around the word "negro" and whether it's acceptable to use in modern society.

    July 31, 2014 3 Photos

  • The virtues of lying

    Two computational scientists set out recently to simulate the effects of lying in a virtual human population. Their results, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, show that lying is essential for the growth of a cohesive social network.

    July 31, 2014

  • Sunburn isn't the only sign of summer that can leave you itchy and blistered

    You've got a rash. You quickly rule out the usual suspects: You haven't been gardening or hiking or even picnicking, so it's probably not a plant irritant such as poison ivy or wild parsnip; likewise, it's probably not chiggers or ticks carrying Lyme disease; and you haven't been swimming in a pond, which can harbor the parasite that causes swimmer's itch.

    July 30, 2014

  • Survey results in legislation to battle sexual assault on campus

    Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill joined a bipartisan group of senators Wednesday to announce legislation that aims to reduce the number of sexual assaults on college campuses.

    July 30, 2014

  • An alarming threat to airlines that no one's talking about

    It's been an abysmal year for the flying public. Planes have crashed in bad weather, disappeared over the Indian Ocean and tragically crossed paths with anti-aircraft missiles over Ukraine.

    July 30, 2014

  • Sharknado.jpg Sharknado 2 set to attack viewers tonight

    In the face of another "Sharknado" TV movie (the even-more-inane "Sharknado 2: The Second One," premiering Wednesday night on Syfy), there isn't much for a critic to say except to echo what the characters themselves so frequently scream when confronted by a great white shark spinning toward them in a funnel cloud:
    "LOOK OUT!!"

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140729-AMX-GIVHAN292.jpg Spanx stretches into new territory with jeans, but promised magic is elusive

    The Spanx empire of stomach-flattening, thigh-slimming, jiggle-reducing foundation garments has expanded to include what the brand promises is the mother of all body-shaping miracles: Spanx jeans.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Medical marijuana opponents' most powerful argument is at odds with a mountain of research

    Opponents of marijuana legalization are rapidly losing the battle for hearts and minds. Simply put, the public understands that however you measure the consequences of marijuana use, the drug is significantly less harmful to users and society than tobacco or alcohol.

    July 29, 2014