Beal notes that the DIA never considered selling artwork during previous financial crises — such as during the Great Depression or in 1975, when the museum had to close for a month— so he doesn't see why the museum now should have to pay for problems created elsewhere.
Orr has criticized many aspects of the city's financial management, including nearly $1 billion in bonuses paid from Detroit's pension fund. Beal notes that the DIA has been managing and funding its own employees' pensions since 1997, when the museum ceased being a city department.
"It's been painted as the either/or — the DIA or the retirees," Clayson says. "But it's the DIA and retirees or the sophisticated bondholders who lend an insolvent city a lot of money. We can't fall into that trap of retirees versus art."
Todd Levin, a Detroit native now based in New York as director of the Levin Art Group, argues that a DIA art sale likely wouldn't improve the lives of residents. "What they're trying to do is use the money that would be generated by the sale of art as a bailout for these bondholders, saying, 'You made a risky bet, you were wrong, and we're making you whole anyway,'" Levin says.
Says Beal: "You could sell the whole collection, and it wouldn't come close to satisfying anything. Creditors might get a higher percentage of their misguided investment in the city of Detroit, but it's a fraction of the total debt."
In the meantime, Levin speculates that the sold pieces could wind up as assets "for the .0000001%."
"There are very few institutions that could afford to spend $100 million on a masterpiece work of art," the art consultant says. "The question becomes who could afford art works at that price point? It's ultra-wealthy individuals who might purchase this work, take it out of the public view and put it in their private boudoir. Such work might disappear into the annals of time for generations."
A recent Detroit News story noted that although the city also owns the Detroit Zoo, it is not appraising the animals as assets, perhaps because a giraffe couldn't fetch close to what a Van Gogh might.
Out of the DIA's 60,000 pieces, 6,000 are on view, and 3,300 are classified as city of Detroit purchases rather than those donated by patrons, though Beal notes that patrons contributed to those city funds as well.
Christie's is appraising only the city-purchased works, so Rivera's courtyard murals, a gift from Edsel B. Ford, are not at risk, but many of the DIA's most famous paintings — such as Van Gogh's straw-hatted "Self Portrait" (1887), Rembrandt's "The Visitation" (1640) and Giovanni Bellini's "Madonna and Child" (1509) — were bought by the city before the museum's 1927 opening.
Speculation has been that the Van Gogh might be worth $80 million to $100 million, though Beal says the museum's most valuable work could be Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Wedding Dance" (1566), a milestone piece from an artist seldom on the market. Beal figures that if the emergency manager really wants to make a dent in the massive debt, it's these types of pieces — rather than less notable and valuable ones in storage — that would be sold.
Whether the sale happens or not, Beal regrets the injection of dollar figures into the art-viewing experience. "I think it is the overall monetization of everything," he says. "If you say to someone [the Van Gogh] is worth $80 to 100 million, that's what they remember. Well, that's not why it's in this building. It's in the building because of what Van Gogh said [artistically] when he was painting it."
In June, Michigan Atty. Gen. Bill Schuette issued a 22-page opinion stating that "The art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts is held by the city of Detroit in a charitable trust for the people of Michigan, and no piece of the collection may thus be sold, conveyed, or transferred to satisfy city debts or obligations."
Some observers doubt that the governor, who appointed Orr, would want the political heat that would accompany a DIA sell-off. A Free Press/WXYZ-TV poll conducted in late September indicated that 78% of Detroiters opposed the sale of DIA art and that 75% opposed city workers' pensions being reduced to pay down the debt.
Orr's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Levin notes that most high-end art sales involve multiple appraisals, so he questions whether a bankruptcy court would sign off on just one party doing the valuations, particularly one with a vested interest in selling the pieces. "You can't just have one group who also is a seller come in and do this," he says.
Recently, some folks have been floating the idea of the DIA selling art and leasing it back — a suggestion reinforced by Orr's comments to the Economic Club. Beal finds no small irony in the notion that instead of government supporting the arts, an arts institution might be expected to pay the government's bills.
"We run this museum at no cost to the city, which takes about $35 million a year, so it seems to me that we're already morally leasing the collection," Beal said over the phone in mid-October. (That figure includes an additional $4 million spent each year on expenses.) "There's no way we would pay extra money just to have the art."
He says that before the counties' millage vote, he investigated the prospect of such a buy-and-lease arrangement but found no takers. And even so, he says, "you rent it for, what, 20 years to somebody? And then the great works of art all go away."
Beal doesn't intend to be around to see that happen. "I cannot stay under those circumstances," he says, noting that for the city to sell the DIA's art, it either would have to persuade the museum's board of directors to approve such an act or it would have to cancel the 1997 contract that empowered the nonprofit Detroit Institute of Arts Inc. to operate the museum.
If the latter were to occur, Beal says, "we cease to run the DIA, and the city of Detroit gets a $35-million operation back on its books."
Well, no one expected this recovery business to be easy. Not in Detroit.