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Foundations pledge $330 million to prevent sale of Detroit museum art

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In an attempt to save the Detroit Institute of Arts from being crippled or destroyed by its city's epic bankruptcy, nine local and national charitable foundations have pledged $330 million to spare the museum from having artworks sold to help prop up municipal pensions that are in danger of being cut.

The Detroit Free Press reported that the effort began in early November, guided by the chief U.S. District Court judge for Eastern Michigan, who’s trying to mediate fiscal issues. A different judge who’s presiding over the bankruptcy case would have to approve the details of any plan to discharge the city’s debts.

Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager appointed by Michigan’s governor to oversee and stabilize Detroit’s finances, has insisted that the art museum share in the pain of paying off creditors, to the tune of $500 million.  

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Last month, at Orr’s behest, Christie’s auction house finished an appraisal of a small subset of the collection, whose liquidation would present the fewest legal barriers because those works were bought with city funds.

If the city tried to sell art that had been donated to the museum, the givers or their heirs conceivably could try to block the liquidation as an illegal breach of the donor's intention. Christie’s pegged the value of the appraised art at $457 million to $867 million.

The idea of the proposed rescue is to funnel the foundation money to the city’s pension fund, whose retirees are in danger of seeing their promised benefits slashed to pay off Detroit’s other creditors. The city listed $18 billion in debts when it filed for bankruptcy last year.

“Helping to protect the hard-earned pensions of city workers while also preserving the DIA's collection for all the people of southeastern Michigan are worthy components of a balanced overall settlement that will help ignite Detroit's renewal,” the nine foundations participating in the museum rescue plan said in a joint statement. They include the Ford Foundation, Kresge Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The DIA issued a statement last month urging Orr to recognize that the city has “a fiduciary duty to protect the museum art collection for future generations,” and vowing to fight a forced auction of its art.

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Selling Detroit museum art to pay civic debt is dumb

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