Art shouldn't be sold to pay off debt, Detroit museum chief says

Story highlights

  • Detroit is in deep debt
  • Officials ask for inventory of art collection in museum
  • That's raised outcry from those worried about possible sale
  • Spokesman for emergency manager says sale not planned
Outrage over the possibility that a Van Gogh, Bruegel, or any other treasure at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) could be sold to pay down the city's debts prompted a Michigan state senator to propose legislation to protect the masterpieces.
Under the bill presented Wednesday by Sen. Randy Richardville, any art museum in the state must adhere to a code of ethics set forth by the American Alliance of Museums, which prohibits the sale of pieces unless the money is directed to improving the museum's collection.
The DIA has a similar policy with the city, but the government's emergency manager has the power to cancel or modify it.
The bill came about after Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr asked the DIA for an inventory list so that its 60,000 pieces could be appraised. The move sparked alarm among residents and museum administrators that the DIA's collection would be sold to settle the city's massive $15.8 billion debt.
"They basically let us know that the collection was not off the table," said museum director Graham Beal.
Gov. Rick Snyder in March declared a financial emergency exists in Detroit and announced the appointment of Orr to get the city back on solid footing.
Although Detroit owns the art displayed in the DIA, Richardville's bill would provide an extra layer of protection, so that if the city were to file for bankruptcy, none of its art could be sold to satisfy creditors.
"We're talking about cultural influence for the city of Detroit. It's a part of the community and part of what makes Detroit, Detroit," said Richardville. "It shouldn't be sold for monetary use."
Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Orr, told CNN that any concern for the art being sold is premature and that the request for an inventory list is simply a precaution.
"There is no plan on the table to sell any asset of the city. The emergency manager continues to look at all options that will help solve the financial crisis the city faces," Nowling wrote in an e-mail.
Nowling conceded that while the city has not made any plans to sell assets, "it is possible that the city's creditors could demand the city use its assets to settle its debts."
Beal maintains that DIA's collection is among the top six in the Western Hemisphere. While he could not specify a value, Beal said it would likely be in the billions of dollars.
To sell off its pieces would mean dismantling a collection that has set precedents in the United States, he contends.
"It would be a tragic irony -- the first U.S. museum to acquire a Van Gogh in 1922 and then 90 years later, we sell it? It's terrible."
The news that the DIA's collection may face dismantling prompted response from other museum directors across the country, including Thomas Campbell, director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Even in the darkest days of New York City's economic woes, the "cultural treasures closely identified with [New York] ... were never considered an asset that might be cashed in during a crunch," Campbell said in a statement.
"I am sure that many museum directors around the country would join me in condemning the Detroit emergency manager's consideration. Art for the public is not interim, fungible, or liquid," Campbell said.
Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh is flatly against any such move, arguing that selling a masterpiece to pay bills does not address the city's long-term needs.
"If we sell art, it's a one-time fix. We sell that Van Gogh for $30 million, it's a one-time fix. We didn't fix the structural problem," said Pugh.
Laura Bartell, a bankruptcy law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, said she believes Orr is just doing his job and that it would be irresponsible for him not to consider what assets Detroit has and what they are worth.
"I don't think anyone argues that Detroit does not have the legal authority to sell something that Detroit owns. It's a question of whether Detroit will -- and if Detroit should," said Bartell.
Gov. Snyder has been working with Orr to try to ward off the city's bankruptcy and the sale of the DIA's art. However, Snyder admitted that he is not legally empowered to declare the collection hands-off.
Beal said he will do anything in his power to protect the art from any kind of depletion.
"We will defend. We will do everything we can to defend the integrity of this collection," he said.
The DIA was founded in 1885 and houses more than 100 galleries, a lecture and recital hall, an art reference library, and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory, according to the museum's website.