Detroit’s Precious Art

by John Fund
Selling only 38 pieces from the Detroit Institute of Art could raise $2.5 billion.

Everyone has an idea about how to handle bankrupt Detroit. Public-employee unions want a state or federal bailout. A liberal state-court judge in Lansing wants to block the bankruptcy because it might reduce government pensions — with no thought as to where the money to pay for them will come from. Supply-siders want to create “innovation zones” that would spur growth by reducing taxes and regulations in the inner city, but it would be years before that measure would have an effect.

What no one wants to do, apparently, is sell the city’s assets. The city has largely unused parks and waterfront property that could be opened to economic development. The Detroit Historical Museum has a collection of 62 vehicles, including an 1870 Phaeton carriage and John Dodge’s 1919 coupe, that is worth millions. But the biggest sacred cow is the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), one of the nation’s oldest and most valuable art museums. It has pieces by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, and Rembrandt. The Institute also owns William Randolph Hearst’s armor collection and the original puppet from the children’s TV show Howdy Doody.

The Detroit Free Press asked New York and Michigan art dealers to evaluate just a few of the 60,000 items in the Institute’s collection. The experts said the 38 pieces they looked over would fetch a minimum of $2.5 billion on the market, with each of several pieces worth $100 million or more. That would go a long way toward relieving the city’s long-term debt burden of $17 billion.

Just the idea of selling art to avoid painful budget cuts that could send city-employee retirees into poverty in their old age elicits howls of anger. “Bidding stuff off is completely ridiculous,” Bill Shearrod, a grant manager for a Detroit nonprofit, told the Detroit News. “The DIA is the spirit of Detroit.” Local philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman said “it would be a crime” to sell any part of the collection. “It’s not just an asset of Detroit, it’s an asset of the country,” he told the Detroit Free Press. Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette issued a statement asserting that the art is actually held by a charitable trust and not owned by the city. But federal bankruptcy law trumps any state law, so his argument is on shaky ground. Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, took note of the criticism in his first news conference after Detroit’s bankruptcy was announced on July 19. “Nothing is for sale, including Howdy Doody,” he said. But his spokesman Bill Nowling later explained that Orr couldn’t take anything off the table in negotiations with creditors: “We’ve got a responsibility to rationalize all the assets of the city and find out what the worth is and what the city holds.”

Indeed, the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital, discovered just last week that an auction of its city-owned assets could pull in far more than had been predicted. Stephen Reed, Harrisburg’s mayor for 28 years, had misused city funds to assemble a collection of 8,000 artifacts for a Wild West Museum that was never built. The city, deeply in debt, decided to hold an auction, which attracted 10,000 online bidders. The collection sold for $3.85 million — far more than the $2 million to $2.5 million an auction house had estimated.

But DIA supporters scoff at any comparisons between fine art and Wild West artifacts. They insist that if any of the museum’s art is sold, DIA would be ostracized by other museums and barred from hosting traveling exhibitions or from borrowing works. Indeed, in 2008, the Association of Art Museum Directors sanctioned the National Academy Museum in New York for selling two American landscapes in an attempt to stay open. At the time, Carmine Branagan, the academy’s director, told the arts blog CultureGrrl that “we had a choice of selling or becoming part of the dustbin of history.” The sanctions against the academy were quietly suspended in 2010.

Detroit could have done a lot more to avert bankruptcy, but many of its leaders persisted in wallowing in victimology and blaming the suburbs for their problems. Last year, the state of Michigan offered to manage the 1.5-square-mile park of Belle Isle for ten years, upgrading the crumbling facilities and saving the city at least $6 million a year in upkeep. The Detroit city council voted down the idea, 6 to 3. The city, about one-third of whose land is vacant, has previously voted against selling empty lots. One council member told John Stossel of Fox News that he opposed selling them “because the developer wants to grow trees. We don’t need any more new trees in our city.” As for foreclosing on city-owned buildings so they can be sold and perhaps saved from decay — don’t count on it. In February, the Detroit News reported that “last year, county treasury officials refused to foreclose on about 40,000 properties in Detroit and plan to bypass another 36,000 this year because they say they can’t handle the volume of owners not paying their bills.”

Given this abysmal track record, maybe it is time to start ignoring some of the city’s leaders and let the bankruptcy train take its course. That could entail selling part of the DIA’s collection — perhaps starting with the many items (including Howdy Doody) that sit in storage.

This would not be “selling the soul of the city,” as many civic leaders wail. Right now, restoring and paying for basic services should be the city’s top priority. Detroit had more than 15,200 violent crimes and 500 acts of arson in 2012. Police response times are five times longer than the national average, and only 8 percent of crimes are solved, compared with a third nationwide. Some city-employee pensioners retired early and aren’t yet old enough for Social Security or Medicare; they face painful choices if their retirement checks have to be cut.

There’s also the question of elitism. Detroit is now 84 percent African American. Yet, as Joy Hakanson Colby, an art critic for the Detroit News, pointed out in 1997, only 9 percent of the DIA’s visitors in 1996 (there aren’t reliable statistics after that) were black. Those numbers might be slightly higher since the three counties that make up metro Detroit voted last August for a special property-tax increase to prop up the museum; the museum in turn grants free admission to any resident of the three counties.

But somehow I doubt there’s been much change. When I visited the DIA last December, I spent three hours there in both the permanent collection and a special Fabergé-egg exhibit. In all that time, I saw only one African-American visitor, and she turned out to be a student from the nearby university town of Ann Arbor. I asked one of the security guards about my observation, and he said it matched his own experience.

It’s time to make the art in the DIA more relevant to the people who actually live near it. The museum could take some of the money raised from art sales and expand its successful Inside/Out program, in which high-quality reproductions of fine art are put on buildings and in parks, where far more people can actually see them. The DIA’s idea has been emulated by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, and the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington. Here is an example of how it works.

It’s hard to justify letting the current decay of Detroit worsen while so many of its assets are counted as untouchable and kept off the bankruptcy table. Although he is a big art fan, Bill Nowling acknowledges the contradiction. “It’s hard to go to a pensioner on a fixed income and say ‘We’re going to cut 20 percent of your income or 30 percent or whatever the number is, but art is eternal,’” he told the New York Times. “For people, that’s a hard distinction. I think it’s a distinction that some of the patrons of the D.I.A. have a hard time understanding. We’re talking about real people here with real decisions that have real impact on their lives.”

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.