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Is art just a store of value? The battle for DIA

— December 2013

Associated media

Exterior view, the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: DIA

Janet Stiles Tyson reports on the fight to protect Detroit’s art

In June of this year we featured an interview between Janet Stiles Tyson and Graham Beal, the British-born director of the embattled Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). The citizens of Detroid love DIA so much they voted to pay extra taxes to support it, but there are those in the city and beyond who would like to sell the art collection to help pay the city’s debts. Janet now brings us up to date.

The fate of artworks in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts and pensions for city workers have been the most disputed issues arising from the City of Detroit’s entry into Chapter 9 Bankruptcy, which a federal judge approved on 3 December. Yet the means to resolve both may be in the making, as another judge involved in the case has launched a drive to raise enough private monies to effectively ransom the museum’s collection and fund workers’ pensions.

US Chief District Judge Gerald Rosen is negotiating with 10 Michigan-linked charitable foundations to raise $500 million – a sum that Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has identified as a sufficient amount for the DIA to contribute to help resolve Detroit’s financial crisis. Furthermore, as of 6 December, Detroit-area philanthropist, A. Paul Schaap, has pledged to contribute $5 million as inducement for others to follow. Additionally, Tom Guastello, chairman of the Oakland County Arts Authority, has said he will lobby wealthy residents of his county to contribute to such a fund. Oakland is one of three counties, along with Wayne and Macomb counties, whose residents voted to pay additional property taxes in order to support operation of the DIA for 10 years.

One of Rosen’s goals is to establish the DIA as a non-profit corporation, entirely separated from the City of Detroit and thus protect it from any of the city’s financial difficulties. The idea is potentially controversial for a number of reasons. The Free Press has reported that some Detroit residents may be concerned that the city’s most-prized assets are being taken away, and creditors, including European banks, may consider $500 million to be inadequate relative to money that could be generated by sale of the artworks.

Orr, who was appointed to his post by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in March 2013, has maintained that it is necessary to adjust pensions downward, if Detroit is to achieve and maintain solvency, and has insisted that artworks at the DIA, which were purchased with city funds, are assets that could be sold if necessary to pay off creditors. If nothing else, Orr said, the museum needs to find a way to ‘monetize’ the collection so that it can contribute to returning Detroit to fiscal health.

Towards achieving this goal, Orr hired Christie’s auction house to appraise salient works, which include Self Portrait (1887) by Vincent van Gogh; St Jerome in His Study (c.1435) attributed to Jan van Eyck; The Wedding Dance (1566) by Pieter Breugel; and The Window (1916) by Henri Matisse. The Detroit Free Press has reported that the 459 most valuable works paid for by the city have, however, been estimated to be worth less than $1 billion in total: this is considerably less than initially speculated and seems to have dampened enthusiasm for making the art serve as a sort of cash cow, whose sale would substantially reduce Detroit’s reported $18 billion indebtedness.

Officials for the museum have not commented on this development.

As we go online, talks are in progress to free the Institute from the threat to its collections.


Janet Stiles Tyson
Spring Lake, Michigan, USA
Independent art historian

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