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City of Detroit Considers Selling Museum's Permanent Collection to Pay Off Multi-Billion-Dollar Debt But Senate Says No

When a city considers a public art collection a liquid asset, what implications does that have for our culture at large?

One would think that art collections at the museum level would be safe from public-sector buyouts or sellouts, but the latest-breaking news from Detroit has the art world thinking otherwise. According to a report published by The Detroit Free Press last week, the emergency manager assigned to address Detroit's financial crisis is exploring the possibility of selling the Detroit Institute of Arts' permanent collection in an effort to pay down the city's $15 billion debt. "We have to look at everything on the table," a spokesperson for the emergency manager's office stated. "As much as it would pain us to do it... we've got a responsibility to rationalize all the assets of the city and find out what the worth is and what the city holds."

The Detroit Institute of Arts' collection is held in the public trust and technically cannot be liquidated and sold as an asset, but that has not stopped the city from exploring the option. The museum boasts about 60,000 works, including those from Giovanni Bellini, Rembrandt, Rodin, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Diego Rivera's 27-panel fresco "Detroit Industry," which the artist considered his most successful work. The Free Press estimated the market value of 38 of the museum's greatest works at $2.5 billion, with individual paintings like Van Gogh's "Self Portrait" valued at $100 million to $150 million. A move of this nature of course raises the larger question of art's seemingly dispensable role in society and how it often falls victim to budget balancing or market fallouts. In light of these implications, many patrons and public figures have released statements condemning the city's decision to explore the topic, including Thomas P. Campbell, the director and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He said in a statement released last week that the "disheartening reports out of Detroit today will undoubtedly shock and outrage the city's residents," as well as "the millions of people who admire the Detroit Institute of Arts and the entire cultural community who rightly believe that art is a permanent, rather than a liquid, community asset."

Campbell explained that when New York City faced its own fiscal crisis in 1975 and the nationwide financial crisis of 2008, "the cultural treasures closely identified with our own city were never on the table -- never considered an asset that might be cashed in during a crunch to bridge a negative balance sheet." He added, "I am sure that many museum directors around the country join me in condemning the Detroit emergency manager's consideration of the D.I.A.'s collection as an asset. This direction should be quickly and firmly rejected. Art for the public is not interim, fungible, or liquid."

In the latest news reported Tuesday by The Detroit Free Press, a Michigan state Senate committee approved a bill that aims to protect the holdings of the Detroit Institute of Arts and other Michigan museums from the possibility of liquidation to cover municipal debts. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, introduced the bill last Thursday, and it was approved on a 5 to 0 vote on Tuesday by the General Operations Committee. “I introduced the bill to protect the art institutes in Michigan,” Richardville said. “A piece of art might have a certain value in terms of dollars, but like a family heirloom, the value goes beyond dollars.”

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a new weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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