Should Detroit Sell Its High-Value Art Collection to Pay for Its Bankruptcy? Only If it Cares About its Finances—or Art


I've got a new column up at The Daily Beast, in which I argue that Detroit should the collection at the Detroit Art Insitute (DIA) for up to an estimated $866 million. Not only would such a move make a serious dent in Motown's debt problem, it would also allow the art to be sent to places where it might actually be seen.

Here's a snippet:

What sort of message would it send to current and future residents—not to mention current and future bondholders—if Detroit refuses to put everything on the table? You can't eat the DIA's "Still Life With Fruit, Vegatables, and Dead Game," no matter how well-rendered, and for most of the past 80 years, the city has been subsidizing not just the day-to-day running of the museum but also its acquisitions. Such spendthrift priorities are one small reason why the burg is in such bad shape to begin with (and also why the city has relatively clear title to the artworks under consideration).

Building a future around a slogan like Detroit: Come for the Bankruptcy but Stay for the Bruegel is no way to resurrect a city whose population peaked back in 1950. As urban theorist Joel Kotkin has put it, "We get it wrong. We think the cultural amenities drives the prosperity [in cities], when it's really the prosperity that drives the cultural amenities." Artifacts from past periods of wealth—especially publicly funded museums, sports stadiums, orchestras, and the like—are luxury goods that never pay for themselves, either directly or indirectly. Detroit can rebuild its municipally owned art collection if and when it can afford to cover expenses related to activities beyond the core functions of government. Until then, let the bidding begin!

Read the whole thing.

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  1. “Should Detroit Sell Its High-Value Art Collection to Pay for Its Bankruptcy?”
    Next question, please.

  2. Not so fast. Art prices are surging at the moment, so it might make sense to hold the items a bit longer and realize a better return.

    1. Enough About Palin|12.11.13 @ 11:40AM|#
      “Not so fast. Art prices are surging at the moment, so it might make sense to hold the items a bit longer and realize a better return.”

      You want the Top Men to time the art market?

    2. Yes, but Detroit has bills due now. And there is no guarantee that the market will continue to go up.

      Just as individuals who make bad decisions often have to sell valuable items at discount prices, so Detroit.

      Also, the object lesson will be invaluable.

  3. I live just outside of Detroit, and pay a property tax that goes to fund the DIA (didn’t vote for it). Of course, I’ll likely end up with a property tax to pay for a museum that doesn’t exist (or has a much more limited collection.)

    The thing that pisses me off most about this — there’s no reason for the city to own the DIA and it’s contents at all. It should have been spun off to a foundation, and gotten off of the city’s balance sheet. Long ago.

    1. ^This x 1000.

      Around the country, institutions that have spun off have had great success. Cities have no business owning zoos, aquariums, or museums. Spin it off into a non-profit.

  4. Detroit proactively addressing its bankruptcy would require such a cultural sea change that the premise deserves laughter far more than serious consideration. Should and will are vastly different terms.

  5. I have an idea. Detroit should run a telethon on national television, where it displays each work of art and threatens to destroy it if a certain amount of money isn’t donated to the city within so much time. If the target is hit, the art is preserved and remains in Detroit’s possession. If the target is missed, Detroit slowly moves to destroy the work on air.

    1. so the Oral Roberts approach?

      1. More National Lampoon, but in the same vein. Droit moral would limit them somewhat, but it’s not as firmly established in the U.S., especially if the artist is long dead.

    2. Better yet, go on “Hardcore Pawn” and when Les Gold tells you the art is fake,
      demand your $150,000,000 or challenge him to a fist fight.

  6. One of the solutions being proposed is indeed to spin off ownership to an independent commission. Which would make sense, since the (roughly) 4 million people who live in the greater Detroit metro area are currently paying for the upkeep of the museum anyway (as SweatingGin notes above). And there is active fund-raising going on right now to support that commission. Of course they’re unlikely to raise three quarters of a billion dollars, assuming that’s actually what the museum’s collection is worth (and much of it was not bought by the city, which makes it a little trickier in any case).

    1. Spinning it off into a foundation will stop the hemmorrhaging of money for upkeep. But there is nu guarantee the foundation could generate enough revenue to pay the upkeep.

      Also, that does nothing to generate any income, which Detroit needs.

  7. As I understand it, museums have only a small portion of their collections on public display at any moment. I suspect there is plenty of inventory to be gotten rid of prior to reaching the point of bare walls.

  8. We get it wrong. We think the cultural amenities drives the prosperity [in cities], when it’s really the prosperity that drives the cultural amenities.

    I agree with this in 99% of cases.

    There are some (extremely limited) cases where the presence of cultural amenities can attract gentrifiers (i.e. rich people) because gentrifiers like living near cultural amenities.

    So if your strategy is to displace your existing population and replace it with people who will improve the tax base and not cause crime, you might pursue a “remove rent control and support select cultural amenities” tactical pincer.

    But that can only work if you have an area where it’s feasible that rich people might want to move in. If we’re talking about New York, the pincer can work. Maybe. Sometimes. If it’s Detroit, and rich people aren’t going to move there no matter what you do, the pincer will fail.

    SLA museums are not an acceptable activity for the state, yadda yadda yadda.

    1. This actually is happening in Detroit. In the area around the DIA (and from there south to the river) vacancy rate in apartments and condos is lower than 5%. It’s not the rich who are moving in, it’s the ‘creative class’ – geeks, new media folks, artists. All either twenty-somethings or empty-nesters (since nobody in their right mind would let their kids go to the Detroit public schools).

  9. If a private entity found itself in this position, the very same people currently panicking over the horrifying spectacle of the divestiture of this treasure would be gleefully salivating over the capital gains windfall resulting from the Cultural Artifact garage sale.

    1. Yeah – I wish I had the ca$h for this fire sale.

  10. Comment from the Daily Beast Article:

    BettyEverdene, 15 minutes ago, Without art, Detroit will be a ghost town. Art gives children hope. I know, I was one of them. With so many libraries now closed, what safe places to go and what examples of success and beauty will the children have? Selling off a few major pieces will bring the best monies to pay bills. Selling all of the art will leave an empty shell, an abandoned building like the rest of the city where even new buildings are abandoned.

    Yes, Betty, hard times are hard for everyone. If Detroit were really thinking about the children they wouldn’t have gotten themselves into that situation in the first place.

    1. Oh, barf. The number of children “given hope” by million-dollar paintings in a museum is close to zero.

      Have an auction, and call it the “Save the Black Urban Liberal Democrat Legacy Auction.” Get Hollywood bigwigs to overpay for art, and then they can give them back to the DIA on “permanent loan.”

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