Last month, facing the filing of a chapter 9 bankruptcy, Kevyn Orr, emergency manager for the city of Detroit, indicated that the renowned art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is an asset that could be liquidated to satisfy the city’s crippling debt. In response to the drastic proposal, the Michigan state Senate recently passed a bill designed to protect the collection. The bill, which is currently pending a vote by the House, requires that the museum adhere to the American Alliance of Museum’s code of ethics, which requires that sales of art (also known as deaccession) be used “solely for the advancement of the museum’s mission.”
As noted in a recent article, while the city of Detroit is the owner of the museum’s building and collection, a nonprofit institution operates the museum on a daily basis. The multi-billion dollar collection in excess of $2.5 billion includes famous works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt and Giovanni Bellini, among others.
The DIA has stated that it believes the sale of the collection is not authorized by the terms of the museum’s operating agreement with the city. The DIA maintains that its collection is held “in trust” for the public, and thus, is not a saleable asset of the city. A number of the works that have been donated to the DIA’s collection have restrictions on how they can be handled. Alfred Taubman, one of the DIA’s largest donors, commented that “it would be a crime” to sell any of the collection to satisfy wholly unrelated city debt. The proposal has been criticized because to sell art that has been donated to satisfy wholly unrelated debt could quell charitable donations to museums. Further, in this case, the DIA and the city may face protacted litigation from living donors and their heirs for failing to adhere to the donor’s intent.
In the picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Given that any press can be good press, I wonder if attendance is up at the DIA with all this talk about selling the collection. I know I am interested in making the pilgrimage to Detroit after reading about the DIA’s wonderful art collection.