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The city of Detroit is struggling to find ways to emerge from bankruptcy. One idea: Sell the city's art in order to save the pensions of city retirees. This is the basic plan proposed by a federal judge. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports that this grand bargain, as it's being called, has stirred some heated debate.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The Detroit Institute of Arts has faced serious financial difficulties over the years and yet it holds the city's most valuable assets: a world-class art collection that includes works by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Matisse. Estimates vary but Christie's recently appraised these works at more than $850 million. And because some of these masterpieces were bought with city funds, they could be auctioned off to pay creditors.

PAUL SCHAAP: It's the only source of money that exists in the city of Detroit.

BLAIR: Paul Schaap is a philanthropist who says selling even just one of these artworks would be devastating to the museum and the city's morale. But he says so would cutting the retirees' pensions. So when he heard about Judge Gerald Rosen's plan to create a private non-profit that would help both causes, he and his wife committed $5 million.

As Schaap explains it, money raised from foundations and other donors would free the museum from city control. And the city could use that money for pensions.

SCHAAP: The funds would be used to protect the art from sale by creating an independent agency that would then hold the art and the funds would then flow through to the pensions.

BLAIR: Emotions run high around these two issues - the city's prized artwork and the pensions of its retired city employees, like firefighters and librarians.

MICHAEL MULHOLLAND: I think it's immoral to play off art and culture against a person's basic income.

BLAIR: Michael Mulholland is vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 207 which represents about 950 city employees. AFSCME and other labor groups are appealing the ruling that Detroit is eligible for bankruptcy. As for this grand bargain, Mulholland is suspicious.

MULHOLLAND: Pensions will still be cut. And then the art will belong to foundations who are controlled by corporations.

BLAIR: Mulholland says Detroit's emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, has inflated the pensions' budget gap. Originally official reports put the pension shortfall at $650 million. Kevyn Orr's audit puts it at seven times that amount. The fundraising goal for this grand bargain is $500 million. Alan Pyke is deputy economic policy editor for Think Progress.

ALAN PYKE: Five hundred million dollars is pretty close to the amount of money that you would need to close the official pension fund gap, but it's nowhere close to what Kevyn Orr says is needed to close the pension fund gap. So it stands to reason that Orr would continue to push for pension cuts. These are cuts for people who typically receive about $1,500 a month to live on for, in many cases, decades of service to the city of Detroit.

BLAIR: And then there's the question, can Detroit raise $500 million fast enough? Lee Rosenbaum, who writes the CultureGrrl blog on artsjournal.com, says despite the questions about exactly how this grand bargain would work, it might be the best solution yet.

LEE ROSENBAUM: Is it unprecedented? Yeah. Could it set a good example for museums and other financially floundering cities which, like it or not, may be facing similar problems? Possibly. But, you know, foundation money is limited and there's still a question whether even Detroit can raise that much, notwithstanding all the sympathy they have out there in the community.

BLAIR: If this grand bargain does work, these world-renowned masterpieces would stay in Detroit, and many believe that is critical for the city's future. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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