AFC Weighs In On Detroit’s Latest Museum Brouhaha

by Corinna Kirsch on August 6, 2013 · 3 comments Newswire

From Edgar Degas, "Violinist and Young Woman," c. 1871. Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Let’s start with a fact: Detroit is not selling off the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection to cover its debts. This will probably never happen, as it’s strictly forbidden for a museum to do so. But since Detroit announced its Chapter 9 bankruptcy, reporters and critics have been letting their imaginations run wild: what if, despite all odds, DIA did sell all of its art? On one hand, a museum could save a struggling city when nobody else could; on the other, $1 billion worth of art might flood the market, leaving the DIA a skeleton of its former self.

For those coming around to the idea that museums can’t easily sell off their collection, there’s always “non-sale alternatives” to wonder about—like the idea that somehow the DIA’s collection could end up as a mortgaged portfolio, like Annie Leibovitz did with her artworks in 2010. That’s unlikely—Leibovitz is not a museum and thus not beholden to standard museum practice—but the speculation isn’t entirely unfounded either. The city of Detroit has been taking some questionable actions as of late regarding DIA’s relationship to the city’s bankruptcy. The latest drama reveals that Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr hired Christie’s to evaluate the museum’s collection, at a cost of $200,000 to the city.

Rather than speculate about the museum’s future, it’s better to stick with what we know. and here’s the latest: Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr hired Christie’s to evaluate the museum’s collection, at a cost of $200,000 to the city.

The latest in this pre-emptive drama is the revelation that Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr has hired Christie’s to evaluate the museum’s collection, at a cost of $200,000 to the city.

In an official statement released to the Detroit Free Press, Orr claims that the invitation for the London-based auction house to perform a large-scale evaluation comes at the request of the city’s creditors. Orr, in fact, made the initial call to Christie’s, at the request of Detroit’s creditors. This comes just weeks after accusations were hurled at Christie’s for dropping in on the DIA without warning, like vultures.

There are no vultures behind this situation, just the city of Detroit and its creditors. In Orr’s statement to the Free Press, he explains that the independent evaluation has nothing to do with selling art:

The city must know the current value of all its assets, including the city-owned collection at the DIA … There has never been, nor is there now, any plan to sell art. This valuation, as well as the valuation of other city assets, is an integral part of the restructuring process. It is a step the city must take to reach resolutions with its creditors and secure a viable, strong future for Detroit and its residents.

Those creditors, the Free Press, continues, have complained that the DIA’s collection, unlike the rest of the city’s assets, have been “shielded” from them. Given that museums regularly assess the value of their collection on a yearly basis for insurance purposes, it’s a bit odd to hire Christie’s when DIA already has measures in place to evaluate their collection.

Unsurprisingly, the Detroit Institute of Arts is not happy with the city making decisions on their behalf.  They’ve taken to airing their concern on Facebook.

We continue to believe there is no reason to value the collection as the attorney general has made clear that the art is held in charitable trust and cannot be sold as part of a bankruptcy proceeding. We applaud the EM’s focus on rebuilding the City, but would point out that he undercuts that core goal by jeopardizing Detroit’s most important cultural institution.

Bankruptcy does not excuse the city of Detroit from making up rules along the way. Very likely, the city just wasted $200,000 on the city’s part because the fact still remains: museums are strictly forbidden to sell their collection. In the long run, when DIA continues to hold onto its collection, this Christie’s kerfuffle might appear slight.


Poorly Kept Secret Society August 6, 2013 at 4:26 pm

FYI: The Clyfford Still Museum was not allowed to sell any of it’s collection, which belongs to the City of Denver… But, did. And, made $114 million for its endowment. It may just happen. Shudder.

Corinna Kirsch August 6, 2013 at 5:17 pm

Not for operational expenses, and not for the city. An endowment keeps the money within the museum. There are very specific limitations on how a museum can deaccession. : )

Poorly Kept Secret Society August 8, 2013 at 9:07 am

Word. And, rightly so: those best practices for museums and public collections are well founded precisely because of the position Detroit finds itself in. The assets at the Institute are too tempting for Orr. As they were in Denver, eh? The conversation around here is this: does the bat-shit crazy private art market tip the scales? Does the fact that Russian billionaires may be ready to shell out millions unbalance the ethical equation? I’d be curious to know your thoughts.

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