Everyone has an idea about how to handle bankrupt Detroit. Public-employee unions want a state or federal bailout. A liberal state-court judge in Lansing wants to block the bankruptcy because it might reduce government pensions — with no thought as to where the money to pay for them will come from. Supply-siders want to create “innovation zones” that would spur growth by reducing taxes and regulations in the inner city, but it would be years before that measure would have an effect.
What no one wants to do, apparently, is sell the city’s assets. The city has largely unused parks and waterfront property that could be opened to economic development. The Detroit Historical Museum has a collection of 62 vehicles, including an 1870 Phaeton carriage and John Dodge’s 1919 coupe, that is worth millions. But the biggest sacred cow is the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), one of the nation’s oldest and most valuable art museums. It has pieces by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, and Rembrandt. The Institute also owns William Randolph Hearst’s armor collection and the original puppet from the children’s TV show Howdy Doody.
The Detroit Free Press asked New York and Michigan art dealers to evaluate just a few of the 60,000 items in the Institute’s collection. The experts said the 38 pieces they looked over would fetch a minimum of $2.5 billion on the market, with each of several pieces worth $100 million or more. That would go a long way toward relieving the city’s long-term debt burden of $17 billion.
Just the idea of selling art to avoid painful budget cuts that could send city-employee retirees into poverty in their old age elicits howls of anger. “Bidding stuff off is completely ridiculous,” Bill Shearrod, a grant manager for a Detroit nonprofit, told the Detroit News. “The DIA is the spirit of Detroit.” Local philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman said “it would be a crime” to sell any part of the collection. “It’s not just an asset of Detroit, it’s an asset of the country,” he told the Detroit Free Press. Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette issued a statement asserting that the art is actually held by a charitable trust and not owned by the city. But federal bankruptcy law trumps any state law, so his argument is on shaky ground. Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, took note of the criticism in his first news conference after Detroit’s bankruptcy was announced on July 19. “Nothing is for sale, including Howdy Doody,” he said. But his spokesman Bill Nowling later explained that Orr couldn’t take anything off the table in negotiations with creditors: “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.”
Indeed, the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital, discovered just last week that an auction of its city-owned assets could pull in far more than had been predicted. Stephen Reed, Harrisburg’s mayor for 28 years, had misused city funds to assemble a collection of 8,000 artifacts for a Wild West Museum that was never built. The city, deeply in debt, decided to hold an auction, which attracted 10,000 online bidders. The collection sold for $3.85 million — far more than the $2 million to $2.5 million an auction house had estimated.
But DIA supporters scoff at any comparisons between fine art and Wild West artifacts. They insist that if any of the museum’s art is sold, DIA would be ostracized by other museums and barred from hosting traveling exhibitions or from borrowing works. Indeed, in 2008, the Association of Art Museum Directors sanctioned the National Academy Museum in New York for selling two American landscapes in an attempt to stay open. At the time, Carmine Branagan, the academy’s director, told the arts blog CultureGrrl that “we had a choice of selling or becoming part of the dustbin of history.” The sanctions against the academy were quietly suspended in 2010.