Detroit Institute director: Selling art tantamount to closing museum

As Detroit’s bankruptcy saga continues, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts released a letter commenting on the possible sale of the museum’s art to pay down the city’s debt.

Titled “Will the DIA have to sell its art?,” Graham Beal wrote that “selling any art would be tantamount to closing the museum.”

Beal said that although the agreement between the museum and the city has yet to be reached, officials have “no intention of breaching the most fundamental tenet of the art museum world: that art in the collection can only be sold to acquire more (and better) art.”


News has circulated that Kevyn Orr, the city’s emergency manager, reportedly is considering selling some of the museums’s art to pay down the city’s $18-billion debt.

Beal wrote that the museum’s staff and volunteers “have had very little contact” with Detroit’s emergency manager’s office and called the situation “complex and confusing.”

Earlier this month, the city announced that it had hired auction house Christie’s to appraise roughly 3,300 pieces in the museum’s collection, most of which were purchased between 1922 and 1931.

Orr said at the time that the city needed to know the value of its assets and that it had no plans to sell the artwork.

One of the country’s top museums, the Detroit Institute houses 60,000 objects, including masterpieces worth millions by Van Gogh and Matisse.

Leaders in the art world have criticized selling the masterpieces, while others argue that Detroit should sell the assets over cutting city workers’ jobs and benefits.

Beal’s full letter is below:

Will the DIA have to sell its art?

It seems to have become the story that just will not die, covered by news agencies as far apart as Hong Kong and Warsaw, as well as radio stations from London to Los Angeles. We have no intention of breaching the most fundamental tenet of the art museum world: that art in the collection can only be sold to acquire more (and better) art. What the emergency manager’s office will do or attempt to do with respect to the operating agreement between the DIA and the city or with respect to the art remains to be seen. Given that such an action would threaten the millage proceeds upon which we now rely to operate this remarkable museum, selling any art would be tantamount to closing the museum, hardly an outcome in keeping with the EM’s mission of putting Detroit back on the road to prosperity.

DIA staff and senior volunteers have had very little contact with the EM’s office itself, and most of what we learn has come from reading the newspaper -- like everyone else! -- or from Christie’s, the auction house that has agreed to put dollar values on the DIA’s works of art that carry the credit line City of Detroit Purchase: about 3,300 pieces, most of which were purchased between 1922 and 1931.

Even here, though, the situation is clouded by the fact that patrons such as Ralph Harmon Booth personally contributed to a City of Detroit art purchase fund or lent money to enable “City purchases” that seems never to have been repaid. I’ve also learned that the purchase of our wonderful ceiling painting by Tintoretto, apparently using city funds, was only permitted by the Italian government of the time, on condition that it never leave the DIA building. You may have read in the Detroit Free Press that an expert valued the painting at $100 million. This came as a surprise to us as, a couple of years ago, for insurance purposes, a different expert assessed the painting at $2 to $3 million.

I’ve repeatedly been asked about what the DIA is doing and, while I cannot go into any details, a good deal of time and energy has gone into laying out various strategies, depending on what happens next. Of course, we hope that nothing will happen. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has issued an opinion that the museum’s entire collection is held in a charitable trust, which protects the collection for the benefit of the people, and that Michigan law prohibits the sale of the DIA’s collection to pay the city’s creditors and, as I understand things, the EM is subject to Michigan law. Still it’s a complex and confusing situation, with very little in the way of precedent to guide us.

It’s supremely ironic that the DIA should be subjected to threats to the integrity of its collection immediately after achieving financial stability, thanks to the generosity of the voters of Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties, but the business of the museum continues with much increased visitor numbers over last year. It is truly gratifying to see the galleries and other public spaces buzzing with activity.


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