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Detroit’s Bankruptcy Raises Liquidation Worries for Priceless Museum Collection

by Allison Meier on May 24, 2013

The Detroit Institute of Arts (via flickr.com/w4nd3rl0st)

The Detroit Institute of Arts (via flickr.com/w4nd3rl0st)

With Detroit on the brink of declaring bankruptcy, all avenues to rescue the city from insolvency are being put on the table. One of these is the multi-billion-dollar art collection held by the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum (DIA), a possibility which could be pushed for in a bankruptcy situation to cover some of the city’s billions in debt.

Detroit Institute of the Arts hall (via Wikimedia)

Detroit Institute of Arts hall (via Wikimedia)

“I believe that the only reason the city would sell the collection would be to satisfy the creditors,” Annmarie Erickson, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of DIA, told Hyperallergic.

According to the Detroit Free Press: “Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr is considering whether the multibillion-dollar collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts should be considered city assets that potentially could be sold to cover about $15 billion in debt.”

It’s important to note that this sale would be to support the city at large and not the institution. It might seem curious that a city could use a museum’s art collection as a potential asset for liquidation, but DIA has long had a different operating relationship with the city than most museums. DIA was started in 1885, yet since 1919 it’s been a department of the city, with daily operations shifted to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity in 1998 under a 20-year agreement with the city that ends in 2018, according to Erickson. The art itself is still owned by the city, along with the building.

“We are really traveling through uncharted water here,” Erickson said. “There has never been a municipal bankruptcy of this size.” She stated that they are in continuing conversations with the city’s emergency financial office.

One of the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts (via flickr.com/artolog)

One of the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts (via flickr.com/artolog)

The collection itself is impressive, with a room of sprawling murals by Diego Rivera,  along with works by Alexander Calder, Mary Cassatt, Andy Warhol, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Eugène Delacroix, Edvard Munch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and Albrecht Dürer. Much of this collection was donated, which would create the most complications in a sale — the art that faces the greatest risk of liquidation would be anything the municipal museum bought itself. Even if the sale happened, it’s hard to predict what the outcome would be, as work of this quality and quantity does not frequent the market.

“We have stressed that we believe firmly that the museum and the city hold the art collection in trust for the public,” Erickson said. “We believe that the emergency financial manager would come to this same conclusion. Certainly no one could believe that dismantling the art museum would leave the city stronger.”

A gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts (via flickr.com/w4nd3rl0st)

A gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts (via flickr.com/w4nd3rl0st)

DIA itself has long had monetary problems, yet as a sign of public support for DIA, city voters approved a tax on homeowners to keep DIA steady last August (here’s Hyperallergic’s report). DIA’s statement on the current matter, released today, echoes Erickson’s comments to Hyperallergic:

The DIA strongly believes that the museum and the City hold the museum’s art collection in trust for the public. The DIA manages and cares for that collection according to exacting standards required by the public trust, our profession and the Operating Agreement with the City. According to those standards, the City cannot sell art to generate funds for any purpose other than to enhance the collection. We remain confident that the City and the emergency financial manager will continue to support the museum in its compliance with those standards, and together we will continue to preserve and protect the cultural heritage of Detroit.

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