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Setting the Table

Clayton Pennington | August 18th, 2013


On July 18 Detroit, one of largest cities in the United States, declared bankruptcy. The filing was made on the advice of Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager of the city, who was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder.

Orr is faced with a monumental task—the Motor City is estimated to be in debt to the tune of $18 to $20 billion. In early August, it became public that Orr had hired Christie’s to appraise the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which was founded in 1885.

Orr claims that a sale of the collection is not planned...yet. “The city must know the current value of all its assets, including the city-owned collection at the DIA,” Orr said. “There has never been, nor is there now, any plan to sell art. This valuation, as well as the valuation of other city assets, is an integral part of the restructuring process.”

Despite his current protestations, should Orr ultimately pursue a sale, he’s going to run into significant legal roadblocks. In June, the state Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a 22-page opinion stating emphatically that “the art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts is held by the City of Detroit in 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.”

Further, on June 11, 2013, the Michigan Senate passed the Art Institute Authorities Act, which would forbid art institutes in the state from deaccessioning that is not in accordance “with the code of ethics for museums published by the American Alliance of Museums” and specifies that the art collection of an art institute may “not be leased, pledged, mortgaged, or otherwise encumbered; and may not be sold unless the sale is in connection with the relocation of the art collection to a comparable facility within the same municipality.” (The Senate bill has been referred to committee.)

Christie’s confirms it has been hired to appraise the collection but notes that it “will also assist and advise on how to realize value for the City while leaving the art in the City’s ownership…. We want to continue to focus our efforts on being a positive force in both the interests of the City of Detroit and its arts community, including working with our fellow arts professionals at the DIA and with the City to find alternatives to selling that would still provide the City with needed revenue.”

The city of Detroit, swimming in debt, is the owner of a valuable collection of art, and we’re sure that creditors that are being asked to settle for far less than they are owed might point to the easy money that would come from strip-mining the DIA. The emergency manager should stand firm and rule out gutting an important cultural resource.


Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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