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Selling Detroit Museum's Treasures Doesn't Make Sense

The "Detroit Industry" fresco by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera is seen at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

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That selling off masterpieces from the Detroit Institute of Arts is even being considered as a way to help fix the city’s financial problems is just one more sign of how low the city—and its leaders—have sunk.

Of course, Detroit is in trouble—the bankruptcy filing on July 18 over $18 billion in debt is the biggest, clearest, recentest sign of it. Of course, fixing it won’t be pain free.

But it’s a betrayal of the whole community for leaders to consider selling off the paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Pieter Bruegel the Elder and other irreplaceable art treasures from the Detroit museum’s collection, a collection belonging to the whole community.

So I join Tyler Green of the blog Modern Art Notes and other arts writers he’s lined up across the country for today’s “Day for Detroit” in calling on Michigan leaders to reject this dumb path. You can
email the museum your thoughts via this link
.

Detroit Institute of Arts docent Lea Schelke points out details in the "Portrait of Postman Roulin" by Van Gogh displayed at the museum in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Detroit Institute of Arts docent Lea Schelke points out details in the “Portrait of Postman Roulin” by Van Gogh displayed at the museum in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Around Boston, we saw this sort of financial crisis—though certainly on a smaller scale—prompt thoughts of selling off a community’s art legacy when Brandeis University threatened to close its Rose Art Museum and sell off its renowned collection as it struggled during the height of the Great Recession in 2009.

Like Brandeis’s threat—from which the Waltham school backed down after international condemnation and a lawsuit—desperate leaders in Detroit, charged with safe guarding a community legacy, are instead mulling pawning treasures assembled over more than a century to solve their immediate crisis.

For Detroit, it doesn’t even make financial sense. The city’s dilemma has frequently been framed as sell the art or cut the pensions of 21,000 retired city workers. Few seem to note that the proposed art sales are unlikely to cover the city’s estimated $3.5 billion in underfunded pension liabilities and $5.7 billion for retiree health coverage.

And how does a one-time cash infusion from the sale of irreplaceable works of art solve Detroit’s ongoing operating deficits? The city’s spending has exceeded its budget by about $100 million each year since 2008, according to reports.

It’s like selling your grandma’s wedding ring quick and cheap because your income from your job is less than your rent. Sure, you’ve temporarily plugged the hole so that you might be able to cover your rent this month and perhaps the next, but you’ve not fixed the long-term problem, grandma’s ring is gone forever, and you didn’t even get a great price for it.

Rodin's "Thinker" sits outside the Detroit Institute of Arts. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Rodin’s “Thinker” sits outside the Detroit Institute of Arts. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Is it cynical to worry that both the museum and the retires will face cuts while government leaders do their best to protect bondholders and other lenders to Detroit?

Well, how about this: Detroit’s financial doomsday hasn’t seemed to stop Michigan politicians from planning to use tax money to pay 58 percent of the cost of a proposed $450 million arena in downtown Detroit for the “billionare” for-profit Detroit Red Wings’ owner, according to a July 25 report by Crain’s Detroit Business.

“Detroit’s state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, has said the city’s recent Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection filing won’t affect the arena project,” the publication added.

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