The Fight to Save Detroit’s Art Museum

A potential breakthrough deal could keep the bankrupt city's art collection off the auction block

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Detroit Institute of Arts

Claude Monet's Gladioli, which Christie's valued at up to $20 million, is among the art that could be sold as part of Detroit's bankruptcy settlement.

In a bankrupt city of well-documented woes like blighted houses, broken streetlights and persistent crime, few issues have galvanized residents like the possibility that the Detroit Institute of Arts could be stripped of its treasures.

That prospect became quite real late last year after Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, hired the auction house Christie’s to appraise the value of 1,741 city-owned paintings, sculptures, silver, furniture and drawings. Their verdict on the collection: it is worth between $421.5 million to $805 million. (The appraisal only included works owned by the city and not the entire museum collection.)

But none of the art has yet been sold – and in fact, the collection may be on the verge of being saved.

On Monday, a group of national and local foundations, including The Ford Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, stepped forward with pledges worth $330 million, while individual donors are expected to add to the total. The deal, which has been quietly in the works for months, would transfer ownership of the museum from the city to a nonprofit funded by the rare collaboration among leading philanthropic organizations. The city would use the money from the sale to reduce its pension obligations and other municipal debts.

Plenty of hurdles remain. The pledge money is not enough to match Christie’s appraisal, and the city’s creditors, who are seeking their own estimate, are expected to challenge what they view as a low-ball number for the art.

Included in that appraisal are some of the most important pieces at the museum, such the ballerinas in Edgar Degas’ Danseuses au Foyer (worth $20 million to $40 million); Henri Matisse’s Le gueridon (worth up to $80 million), and the museum’s prized possession, Vincent Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Hat, which the estimate says could bring as much as $150 million if put up for sale.

The city has wrestled over the future of these prized assets as it seeks to claw back from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Orr was granted the legal authority by the federal judge overseeing the bankruptcy to explore selling parts of the collection as he works to settle the city’s $18 billion debt.

The theory has been that if the artworks eventually made their way to auction, the money could help rescue pensions for city workers. Orr has said pensions are almost certain to be cut as part of a settlement with creditors. Auctioning some of the city’s most valuable assets could mitigate the extent of the financial hit, or so the reasoning went.

But the prospect of selling a hallowed art collection to meet more temporal needs has caused just as big an uproar as the idea that pensioners might have to make sacrifices.

“Somebody who looks purely at numbers and accounting ledgers and Excel spread sheets would say, ‘the Brueghel has this value, the Van Gogh has that value, and we should convert it into revenue to bridge the gap,” says Megan O’Connell, a local artist and designer. But the museum, she says, is “an unspeakably valuable asset in terms of giving people a touchstone with history.”

Jennifer H. Goulet, the president of ArtServe Michigan, a group that promotes the arts across the state, said there are “indeed difficult decisions to make on priorities as the city takes its next steps.”

But Goulet argues that Detroit has to maintain its “most valuable assets” as it finds solutions for the future. “The D.I.A. is clearly one of those unique assets that needs to be integral to the city’s rebirth,” Goulet said.

Given the sad state of other parts of the city, however, it’s logical to ask, why the fuss?

Detroit, after all, is infamous for its dysfunction: 911 response times are 58 minutes, more than five times slower than the national average, while at night, swaths of the city are dark because broken streetlights have remained unfixed. Even when some are restored, copper thieves have been known to swoop in to strip the wiring. Considering the dearth of these basic services, what is it about the plight of the city’s museum that resonates so deeply?

“It really speaks to the importance for human beings of having a collective cultural heritage,” says Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang, an assistant professor of education and psychology at the University of Southern California whose grandparents were artists in Detroit. “Art is deeply personal and very, very broadly social at the same time.”

The problems at the museum, known locally as the D.I.A., are not new. Since its founding in 1885, the museum has fought many battles for survival, riding out the Great Depression, and other fiscal crises. In the past decade, it remade itself with a more-contemporary approach, only to see state and other funding evaporate in the wake of the recession.

In 2012, museum officials successfully convinced residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to approve a 10-year millage that gave them free admission in exchange for a small property tax hike.

The museum’s director, Graham Beale, said at the time that he based that campaign, Art Is For Everyone, on the idea that art “doesn’t belong to the city the way a fire engine does. It belongs to the people.”

Indeed, free admission for area residents and the fears generated by the possibility of work being sold led to an attendance spike over the summer. In the 2013 fiscal year, which ended July 31, the D.I.A. drew 594,267 patrons, the most since 1999, while attendance just in July and August was up by 55,000 people over the previous year, according to Pamela Marcil, a museum spokeswoman.

The works they viewed range from the first Van Gogh ever purchased by an American museum to Diego Rivera’s murals depicting Ford Motor Company’s Rouge manufacturing complex.

More recently, the D.I.A. presented rock singer Patti Smith’s first photography exhibit at a major American museum, along with an animation and music festival, and hosted a Faberge show.

This revival has helped the D.I.A. attract more people than comparable Rust Belt museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, whose soaring wing designed by the star architect Santiago Calatrava has been a tourist beacon.

All those cities saw their cultural institutions rise during the past century along with their economies, becoming points of civic pride and valuable sources of tourism revenue. Those visitors – and locals — are drawn by a common theme that Immordino-Yang says makes the Detroit situation an even more fundamental one.

“Art stands for a value that is really sacred to us as human beings, which is being able to express our emotional condition,” she said. “It can take precedence over our physical needs. It’s something unique to the human species. There’s no other creature so deeply moved by ideas and representing experience and emotion as we are.”

Emotion is one thing. But can Detroit’s citizens channel their feelings about the art into raising enough money to preserve it?

“There are countless examples of places across the United States and New York City where we’ve lost something fundamental and important,” said Raju Mann, director of policy and planning for the Municipal Arts Society, which is best known for saving New York’s Grand Central Station.

Detroit’s art battle is “something that’s quite profound and speaks to a kind of metaphor for the city and its desperate situation,” Mann said. “These kinds of moments make it a little more tangible and emotional than school closings or streetlights or transit. They get to the emotional heart of what the city of Detroit is experiencing.”

Now, with potential support from foundations and philanthropists, Detroit’s art might just be on safer ground.