Proposal To Sell Detroit's Art To Save The City Draws Outrage

Detroit's emergency financial manager is considering selling artwork from The Detroit Institute of Arts to help raise money for the city's debt. Robert Siegel talks to John Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press for more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Perhaps you know what these artworks have in common: Van Gogh's "Portrait of the Postman Roulin," his ample beard falling in two symmetric lobes over the collar of his navy blue uniform; Brueghel the Elder's "Wedding Dance," in which some of the exuberant contact seems to go beyond dancing; Diego Rivera's fresco of workers on an assembly line: Detroit Industry, South Wall.

Well, Detroit is the tip off here. They're all part of the Detroit Institute of Arts' collection. The city of Detroit actually owns the collection and since the city is broke and at least $15 billion underwater, the proposal was inevitable. The city's emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, is charged with balancing the city's books. So, what about selling the collection?

Well, joining us now to talk about it is John Gallagher, reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Welcome to the program.

JOHN GALLAGHER: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: Kevyn Orr has floated of some possibility of selling artwork. Can he legally do that?

GALLAGHER: Under some circumstances, he can. He can't just sell it off piecemeal. But if he puts the city into bankruptcy, into Chapter Nine, or if he comes up with a comprehensive plan for straightening out the city's books, he would be allowed to cancel contracts and alter other arrangements. And in those conditions he could sell some of the artwork.

SIEGEL: Well, let's assume that these are assets of the city and they might figure, hypothetically, in some bankruptcy settlement. How much is the collection supposed to be worth?

GALLAGHER: Well, we took a look at just 10 well-known works, some of which you mentioned there, and came up with, you know, 50 to $100 million each. So there seems little doubt that you're talking in the billions of dollars, if you talk the collection at large.

SIEGEL: How has the city of Detroit and, for that matter, the museum responded to this?

GALLAGHER: Well, general outrage I think would be the right way to put it. The museum officials naturally are fairly horrified. You know, the DIA is one of the glories of the city of Detroit and has been for decades. And this would create a lot of blowback if he tried to go down this route.

SIEGEL: I gather, though, that some municipal employees have voiced the argument that, you know, better to part with a 150-year-old Van Gogh than to eliminate a hundred jobs, say.

GALLAGHER: Right, and most of the money that city owes is in the form of unfunded pension funds obligations and health care obligations for city workers and retirees. You know, you're talking about breaking promises and the question is, do you want to do that, or would you rather depart with a few choice paintings and raise a couple hundred million dollars, which would not go very far, to filling the city's budget gaps but it would be a symbolic gesture to show that everybody is contributing.

SIEGEL: Is this very unusual for a city to actually own the collection in its big art museum?

GALLAGHER: Yes, and it's a legacy of the 1920s in Detroit, when the young automotive industry was generating so much money that the city of Detroit was able to not only build one of the great museum buildings in the country, but stock it with some of the great artwork in the world. And, of course, then all the great families in Detroit have donated artwork and money over the years; the Fords, the Dodgers, the Chryslers, so that the DIA now has certainly a top 10 collection, if not a top five collection in the United States.

SIEGEL: I noticed that the Diego Rivera mural that I mentioned was a gift of Edsel Ford. When somebody makes a gift like that, is it understood that the, as you say in Detroit, the DIA - elsewhere that's of course the Defense Intelligence Agency - the Detroit Institute of Arts is free to sell it, if need be?

GALLAGHER: A lot of the artwork in the DIA is protected by the deeds of gifts that donors gave over the years, over the decades where they would give a painting with the understanding that it would stay in the DIA collection. So that artwork is probably protected. But the city of Detroit itself purchased a lot of this artwork in the early years of the 20th century and that artwork would be vulnerable to a sale.

SIEGEL: It would be unlikely, though, for someone to give a Bernini sculpture to the museum and say, it's for display unless you to build a firehouse, you might want to sell it instead of for that purpose.

(LAUGHTER)

GALLAGHER: Right, exactly. And, you know, one of the issues here is that donors would be unlikely to give to the museum in the future if they knew that the museum or the city could turn around and sell more artwork. This has a lot of implications for the DIA and I think the museum world in general.

SIEGEL: Well, John Gallagher, thanks a lot for talking with us about it today.

GALLAGHER: Anytime, Robert. Thank you

SIEGEL: That's reporter John Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press.

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