Sale of Detroit Institute art debated in light of city’s bankruptcy

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The Detroit Institute of Arts is back in the national spotlight after city leaders said Thursday that the city had filed for bankruptcy. At the heart of the museum-world debate is whether the city should sell valuable works of art in the DIA’s collection to pay off some of the city’s debt.

Selling items from a public museum is frowned upon by the art world. In June, Michigan Atty. Gen. Bill Schuette stated that the art in the DIA is held in the public trust and therefore cannot be sold.

The Michigan state Senate passed a bill in June that would stop any sale of art unless the items were transferred to a comparable institution. But the bill hasn’t been approved by the state’s House of Representatives.


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The DIA is one of the top art museums in the country and has 60,000 objects dating from the Renaissance to the 20th century. The museum is headed by Graham W.J. Beal, who once served as director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Detroit is facing debt estimated at $19 billion. News of the possible art sale was first reported in May by the Detroit Free Press. The city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, was reportedly considering selling objects from the museum and had set in motion an appraisal of works of art in the permanent collection.

Prominent leaders in the museum world have criticized any possibility of a sale. But others believe selling art would benefit the city and its inhabitants.

A Forbes commentator wrote on Sunday that “yes, of course [the museum] should sell” works from the collection. Tim Worstall wrote that much of the debt could be paid down “by moving around some paint daubed pieces of canvas. That looks pretty much like a no brainer to me as a start. What is it that we’re supposed to care about? A few pieces of canvas or real lives as they are actually lived?”

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On Thursday, DIA posted an official statement in reponse to the city’s decision to declare bankruptcy:

“Like so many with deep roots in this city, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is disappointed that the Emergency Manager determined it was necessary to file for bankruptcy. As a municipal bankruptcy of this size is unprecedented, the DIA will continue to carefully monitor the situation, fully confident that the emergency manager, the governor and the courts will act in the best interest of the City, the public and the museum. We remain committed to our position that the Detroit Institute of Arts and the City of Detroit hold the DIA’s collection in trust for the public and we stand by our charge to preserve and protect the cultural heritage of all Michigan residents.”


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