Private Donors Try to Save Detroit's Art Collection from Bankruptcy Auctions

The fate of both Detroit's art collection and pension plan has been up in the air since the city filed for bankruptcy in July, and was deemed eligible for the Chapter 9 filing in December of last year. Now, private donors have offered up a plan that would help save both - but the city might not go for it.

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The fate of both Detroit's pension plan and its art collection has been up in the air since the city filed for bankruptcy in July, and was deemed eligible for the Chapter 9 filing in December. With over $18 billion in debt to pay off, the city has considered the possibility that its most valuable assets could be put on the auction block, sacrificing cultural heritage to pay its bills. Now, a group of private donors have offered up a plan that would help save both the workers and the art — but the city might not go for it.

On Monday, nine national and local philanthropic foundations pledged $330 million towards pension creditors in exchange for transferring ownership of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) from the city to a nonprofit organization, protecting the museum's massive collection from any attempts by the city to sell it for profit.

A DIA visitor looks at "Self Portrait" by Van Gogh, left, and
"Portrait of Postman Roulin" by Van Gogh. AP /Carlos Osorio)

Detroit's impressive art trove includes pieces by Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and others, including Depression-era murals by Diego Rivera which, ironically, serve as an example of the New Deal's investment in culture as a way to boost the economy.

According to the Detroit Free Pressthe plan has been in the works for several months:

With the future of Detroit at stake, leaders of national and local foundations gathered on a chilly afternoon in early November in the downtown chambers of U.S. Chief District Judge Gerald Rosen. Rosen, the federal mediator in the Detroit bankruptcy, led a wide-ranging 3½-hour discussion, during which he floated a novel idea for a grand bargain: Could the foundations pony up hundreds of millions to bolster at-risk city pensions and prevent the Detroit Institute of Arts from having to sell its treasures?

The New York Times reports that the donation is in part designed to avoid a narrative which pits pension cuts against the art collection, positing that fighting against selling Detroit's art is akin to fighting against saving retirement entitlements:

Even before Detroit filed for bankruptcy, the fate of the art collection — one of the few city assets that is both highly valuable and easily portable — became linked in the public mind with the fate of pensioners. Yes, the art is a cultural and historical treasure, the reasoning went, but is it more important than payments people rely on for food and bills? If selling the paintings could help pay those checks, shouldn’t the paintings be sold? Museum officials and supporters worried about the debate’s being framed in such a way and warned that the thinking was flawed and shortsighted.

Even if the donation does serve to convince the public that saving Detroit's art and pensions is the a zero-sum game, the city might not be amenable to the proposal.

People stand next to "Gladioli" by artist Claude Monet REUTERS/Joshua Lott

Detroit's Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr had aimed to raise at least $500 million from private donors for the bankrupt city, which must figure out how to pay back $18 billion worth of debt. And though city administrators are happy to at least start making a plan, raising money for the ailing city promises to be a difficult task, especially as residents' pension remains underfunded by roughly $3.5 billion.

Furthermore, the city's sellable art collection has been appraised by Christie's as worth somewhere betwee$454 million and $867 million, hardly enough to cover the difference, even if creditors suspect that this is a severe underestimation. Christie's only looked at the art purchased using the city's money (around 2,800 of the museum's 66,000 works) because, it says, art purchased by individuals and donated to the museum is privy to restrictions that would complicate sales. Some have estimated that the DIA's pieces are worth up to $8 billion altogether, rendering the $330 million donation a laughable sum. In November, creditors filed a motion to reevaluate the city's art collection. 

Still, selling classic art is a taboo most officials would be loath to cross. Brandeis University was sued for proposing a sale of its art collection after its finances took a hit in the 2008 financial collapse. Selling art is considered both culturally harmful and short-sighted, as Chicago History Museum Executive Vice President Russell Lewis explained to NPR: 

"Your collection is from a strategic point of view one of the most valuable resources you have to generate excitement among the public and among donors who will help support the museum... Once you go down that path of selling something that has a high value and is part of the legacy collection, you're going to have a hard time attracting donors."

Brandeis ultimately settled after receiving much flack for even considering the move. Hopefully, Detroit will also find a way to protect its collection and keep the city afloat.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.