Detroit Bankrupt 2013: Selling Detroit's Art Collection Is a Sloppy Fix, Not a Real Solution

There is no question that the city of Detroit — both its individual residents and its collective institutions — faced serious economic challenges during the 2008 recession. With an unemployment rate at 17.5% and over $14 billion in long-term debt, the city is far from boasting a stable economy.

The state of Michigan, whose Governor Rick Snyder imposed financial sovereignty over the city in March, is considering various measures to reduce each of the above figures. One approach in particular being discussed is to sell some of the city’s publicly owned artwork and direct the revenue towards chipping away at the city’s debt. Specifically, the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection would be subject to a sell-off.

Many members of the Detroit public, not just those particularly tied to the art world, have decried the proposal as an affront to the city’s cultural values. Senator Randy Richardville (R-Mich.) has proposed a bill that stipulates: “An art institute shall adhere to the code of ethics for museums published by the American Alliance of Museums or a successor organization,” a provision that effectively disallows public art from being sold for any other purpose than for capital to purchase new art.

Antagonists of the state’s proposal have cited Senator Richardville’s bill to bolster their argument that the proposal would unnecessarily deplete the city’s cultural resources. A Republican, Senator Richardville favors responsible spending and government. His overt support of such a bill thus exhibits the breadth of opposition that the state would face if it elected to move forward with this proposal.

Amidst the widespread opposition from those within and outside of Detroit, it is unlikely that any element of the state’s proposal will actually materialize.

The emergency manager appointed by the governor to improve Detroit’s economic situation, Kevyn Orr, realizes the cultural and social flaws of the proposal to sell the museum's artwork, yet he was appointed to make the difficult decisions that are necessary to improve the city’s overall situation — a situation which, at the moment, cries out for difficult, deliberate action. His spokesperson notes: “We have to look at everything on the table. As much as it would pain us to do it — and it does,, I’m a great lover of art and so is Kevyn — we’ve got a responsibility to rationalize all the assets of the city and find out what the worth is and what the city holds.”

Ultimately, it is doubtful that much of the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection be auctioned off given the obvious public ramifications. Fine art is indeed a luxury, however, and the city must determine its priorities.

Rather than having a yard sale, perhaps the city should reduce spending to limit its deficit and then sponsor initiatives that create jobs in the private sector, eventually increasing government revenue and reducing the debt. Mr. Orr and his partners in emergency management ought not merely “rationalize assets,” but establish a plan for the long-term health of the Detroit economy.