REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Auctioning off Detroit's art collection would reduce the city's debt, not its suffering. Residents shouldn't go for it, even as the price climbs.

A proposal to sell off the art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts is once again making headlines. Earlier this year, after a group of philanthropic donors pledged hundreds of millions of dollars toward Detroit pension creditors in exchange for the security of the art collection, the proposal appeared to be moot. But a new and higher appraisal of the collection has spurred some to rethink the proposition.

Hamilton Nolan makes the case for selling Detroit's art, despite the nearly $800 million guaranteed against the integrity of the museum and given the fact that a fire sale would likely garner under $1 billion

"We would never approve of a city deciding to spend $100 million on one painting when it could not afford to provide water to its citizens," Nolan writes. "It is equally wrong to approve of a city refusing to sell a painting for $100 million when the money could be used for such a pressing purpose."

In these terms, selling art becomes its own imperative. At what point is Detroit's suffering no longer a pressing purpose? Surely not until some "2,781 pieces... estimated to be worth $454 million to $867 million" are sold off, for whatever fraction of that value they can command at auction. "Art is everywhere. Art is free," Nolan writes. "Human suffering, on the other hand, is incalculably expensive."

The question is uniquely tailored to Detroit, since the city owns the Detroit Institute of Arts. Philadelphia, for example, can't sell the Museum of Art's Eakins, Duchamp, or Rodin masterpieces (much less stop it from building a $350 million expansion designed by Frank Gehry), since the city only owns the property. But the maximalist logic behind the Detroit sale pops up from time to time in Washington, D.C. In 2010, for example, a deficit-reduction commission convened by President Barack Obama called for slashing the Smithsonian Institution's budget by hundreds of millions and charging $7.50 per visit. Yet even more deficit could be reduced—even more suffering could be alleviated—by selling a Van Gogh or a Matisse or the Hope Diamond or the Spirit of Tuskegee.

Ultimately, selling Detroit's art will do more for deficit reduction than for alleviating suffering. The very reason that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department initiated an unprecedented crackdown on delinquent accountholders is to reduce the utility's debt in hopes of making it a more attractive target for privatization. No one is talking about giving money directly to delinquent residents, except, well, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which has begun making residents aware of the $1 million purse available specifically for residential account holders who have received shut-off notices.

Let's no one rush to the defense of the Detroit water authority: It was only after Canadian activist Maude Barlow and Detroit journalist Anna Leigh Clark (writing for Next City and The New York Times) put a human face on water cut-offs that DWSD tweaked its practices. Now, the Detroit Free Press reports, the agency is focusing on commercial customers, some of which are massively delinquent. DWSD showed me shut-off work orders dated July 2 for Joe Louis Arena, a delinquent account holder that owes at least $34,000.

Yet—as if to prove that corporations are people, too—the same commercial shut-off work orders also indicated a number of healthcare facilities, including the Detroit Institute for Children, an orthopedic clinic that owes about $3,400, per the records. The Children's Hospital of Michigan owes almost as much for water and sewerage as the much-vilified home of the Detroit Red Wings.

No one but Hamilton Nolan is talking about selling the city's art assets and giving the money to Detroit residents who can't afford to pay their water bills. For the pensioners, at least, their best bet appears to be the $800 million that philanthropists have offered so long as the art collection's fate is secure. Factoring in lawsuits from donors, trends in art auctions, and the effect of flooding the market, and a fire sale at the Detroit Institute of Arts might not actually make more than that. 

Liquidating art collections for the sake of a museum, city, or state is the kind of thing that keeps curators up at night—in part because it happens so often. (The National Gallery of Art was founded on the $7 million purchase of 21 masterpieces from the Soviet Union. Stalin used the money to finance the first Five-Year Plan.) The Association of Art Museum Directors levies sanctions against museums that sell works (or "deaccession" them). Los Angeles Times blogger Carolina A. Miranda explained recently just how rigid these high priests can be about this rule.

But there's a reason why deaccessioning is a bad word: Without the guarantee that forever means forever, art collectors would be foolish to leave their works to museums. Setting aside entirely the long-term costs associated with a Detroit art sale—in terms of tourism but also inspiration, a fuzzy yet absolutely vital economic concern for a city—the destruction of the Detroit Institute of Arts would have a disquieting effect on public art collections in cities everywhere. Private museums, too. And, again, for no immediate benefit to Detroit pensioners or people whose water just got shut off. 

To repeat what Nolan writes: "Art is everywhere. Art is free." Sadly, that's just not true. It seems cruel to preserve art in the face of suffering, whether that's during the Great Depression or the current calamity. There is a moral cost in doing so. But that cost is paid forward, an investment in the future of the city and the continuation of everything it stands for.


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