Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The museum is threatening to play hardball if it's ordered to auction off its assets to help the city pay off its massive debt.
After walking up the stairs of the Woodward Avenue entrance to the Detroit Institute of Arts, passing one of Rodin's "Thinker" statues and entering the main lobby, visitors are quickly drawn toward a sky-lit courtyard with four walls painted by Diego Rivera. The frescoes signify, in many ways, the museum's identity: art at an awe-inspiring scale, serving as a testament to the industrial heyday of the Motor City.
Rivera's work, and the rest of the DIA's contents, may soon be seen merely as financial assets in the eyes of creditors looking to get back the massive amounts of long-term debt the city of Detroit owes, currently estimated to be as much as $15 billion. The DIA's collection is believed to be worth billions, and art museums do sell off parts of their collection from time to time, though usually to acquire other art.
"This is unprecedented in the history of any art museum," says the museum's vice president, Annemarie Erickson. "We’re in unchartered waters."
As the Detroit Free Press has reported, newly appointed emergency financial manager Kevyn Orr is considering whether the DIA's collection should be declared a city asset in the event that Detroit goes bankrupt. "It was always raised as a possibility," says Erickson. "A year ago it was raised as speculation but it has been brought up as a realistic possibility starting two weeks ago."
First founded as a nonprofit in 1885, the Detroit Institute of Arts became a city department in 1919 and its current agreement has no stated provisions related to a possible municipal bankruptcy. In his new position, Orr may have the legal ability to sell off the museum's assets if it means paying off Detroit's debt. The DIA has recently hired a bankruptcy lawyer to explore its own legal options.
The DIA's $132 million endowment ($89 million of it for museum operations) is paltry in comparison to similar institutions like the Cleveland Museum of Art ($368 million) or the Art Institute of Chicago ($651 million), but it has managed to persevere, hosting one of the nation's only African-American curatorial departments as well as focuses in European, contemporary, Indigenous, Oceanic and Islamic art.
As a major part of the DIA's 2007 expansion, the museum made a concerted effort to become more appealing to general audiences, ditching its long-held reputation as a stuffy institution and embracing playful branding and interactive signage throughout various exhibits.
A relatively new tri-county tax, approved last year, has provided some relief for the museum. The tax has residents of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties fund the DIA's operational budget to the tune of $23 million annually for 10 years. In exchange, residents of those counties get free admission to the museum.
The DIA sees the new tax as proof the region understands how important the museum is to Detroit. Attendance numbers have also improved, even tripling at one point last year.
A sell-off of the DIA's collection would certainly be a hard sell for Orr, even if desperate times do call for desperate measures. "We believe strongly we hold our collection in the public trust," says Erickson. "The governor and the EFM will have to find another way to address the city’s debt. Dismantling the DIA does not leave the city stronger."
Top image: North wall, Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Courtesy the DIA