No doubt, the bankruptcy of Detroit will have unintended consequences. But one possibility, currently under discussion, is especially distressing: sale of the paintings in the Detroit Institute of Arts, which, unlike most municipal collections, is owned by the city, not a nonprofit trust.
Detroit’s court-appointed guardian, and Michigan’s attorney general Bill Schuette, seem determined to avoid the calamity: According to the New York Times, Schuette “issued a forcefully worded opinion saying that the artworks . . . were ‘held in trust for the public’ and could be sold only for the purpose of acquiring additional art, not for satisfying municipal debts.” Under federal bankruptcy proceedings, however, Michigan law might well be superseded, and creditors have been invited to determine the value of the institute’s “assets.”
Selling off the paintings in the DIA, which was founded in 1885, would yield an estimated $2 billion—an amount that would quickly evaporate in the face of Detroit’s $18-20 billion debt. And, of course, if most of the works ended up in private hands, one of the great collections of art in America—rich with Bruegels and van Goghs and Rembrandts—would henceforth be scattered and hidden from public view.
This is reminiscent, to some degree, of the problem posed not long ago by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. A collection acquired by the deeply eccentric and disagreeable inventor of the antiseptic Argyrol, Dr. Albert Barnes, it was managed, under the terms of Barnes’s will, by an institution (Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa.) ill-equipped for the task, and rigidly curated with limited public access, as a monument to Barnes’s theories of connoisseurship. In due course, Lincoln University’s mismanagement yielded a chronic financial crisis, and when its board began lending out paintings and threatening sales, a local philanthropic collective emerged to save the art—both for Philadelphia and from Barnes’s dead hand. The collection is now housed in a handsome new museum, with normal visiting hours, adjacent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
A happy ending for Detroit is not inevitable. In strictly legal, not to say political, terms, the financial claims of creditors might well have greater weight than the principle of a distinguished art collection in Motown. And while individual paintings would no doubt find appreciative owners, they would be lost to the institute’s 600,000 annual visitors. It is hard to imagine the revival of a city that divested itself of its great art museum for cash.
Which leads, once again, to the Barnes Foundation. As Albert Barnes seems never to have comprehended, the possession of great art is a trust, not an emblem of possessiveness, and a civic responsibility. Certain values do transcend legal ownership. The crisis of Detroit is a political and financial failure, but the solution to the crisis has a moral element as well. A great city is the sum of its cultural institutions as well as its business climate. And the same irresponsibility and greed that bankrupted Detroit would counsel the sale of the institute’s “assets” to pay off debtors and avoid a reckoning.
Philip Terzian is literary editor of The Weekly Standard.