Detroit's bankruptcy puts the fate of its art museum at risk

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Yahoo News
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A man looks at a Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts on Sept. 3, 2013. As the city government struggles for a way to pay off its debts, the idea of selling off some of the DIA's collection has been suggested (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

DETROIT — Diego Rivera considered it to be his finest work.

His majestic “Detroit Industry” mural, 27 different frescoes depicting the rise of the industrial age in the city, soars two stories high in a glass-covered courtyard at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Completed in 1933, Rivera’s murals were commissioned and donated to the museum by Edsel Ford, then-president of the Ford Motor Co., whose workers are depicted alongside surrealist images including an unborn baby in a plant bulb and nude goddesses representing fertility.

That imagery — along with the Mexican artist’s outspoken communist views — immediately prompted protests when the work was unveiled, including calls from local church leaders to have the murals destroyed. But the museum stood by the masterpiece, and Rivera’s ode to Detroit has been safe — until recently.

The Rivera mural along with the DIA’s 66,000 other works have been at the center of a political tug of war in the months since Detroit filed for bankruptcy saying it could not pay its more than $18 billion in debts.

Creditors argue that works in the city-owned museum should be considered salable assets to help Detroit pay its bills. In response, Kevyn Orr, the state-appointed emergency manager hired to steer Detroit through its bankruptcy, said he didn’t want to sell the art but didn’t rule it out, either. He hired Christie’s to evaluate exactly how much the museum’s collection was worth.

“Everything is on the table,” Orr has repeatedly said.

The debate has raised a tricky question both in and outside of Detroit about the value of art and when — or if — it deserves protection. The fate of the DIA’s collection has been frequently cast as a choice between something that is measurable — like city worker pensions, which could be cut to pay off creditors — and something that is infinitely harder to determine: the impact of a city’s cultural assets.

“Think of this,” Orr said in a speech before the Detroit Economic Club last October. “I’ve got to rationalize pensions and health care. … There may be your fellow citizens who have to eat cat food, and I’ve got this great collection over here but can’t touch it.”

That comparison has put fear into the DIA staff and the museum’s patrons, who have argued that it shouldn’t be a debate between art and the pensions.

“It’s simply astonishing that this is on the table,” said Graham W.J. Beal, the museum’s director. “We are a sophisticated civilization. … Is there really no other way?”

Looking to save its collection, the museum last month pledged to raise $100 million over 20 years for a rescue fund that would help shore up the city’s ailing pension plans and, in turn, protect its art. That money adds to an estimated $370 million pledged by several foundations looking to save the DIA, including the W.W. Kellogg Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has pledged another $350 million in state funds for the rescue — though that’s contingent on the Legislature.

In exchange for raising the $100 million, the DIA has asked that the city sign over control of the museum to the nonprofit group that has been running it — a proposal that has received a lukewarm reception from some Detroit leaders, even though the cash-strapped city hasn’t contributed to the museum’s operations in a major way in decades.

But even those compromises are on shaky ground, as Detroit navigates its way through bankruptcy. There is an acknowledgement on all sides that if one element of that financing falls through, the whole deal could collapse. At the same time, the city’s creditors are still pressing to keep the idea of auctioning off the DIA’s art on the table.

"We recognize that this is a very sensitive issue," Derek Donnelly, a managing director of New York-based Financial Guaranty Insurance Co., which insured Detroit’s pension bonds, told the Detroit Free Press in November.

While Donnelly said creditors had “hope” the museum would survive the bankruptcy, “The DIA, or art, is not an essential asset and especially not one that is essential to the delivery of services in the city."

In December, Christie’s released its appraisals for nearly 3,000 pieces of the DIA collection that were purchased with city funds — a move Orr requested because the sale of those items wouldn’t raise as much of a legal challenge compared to the artwork that was donated. The result was an unprecedented catalog of the world’s most famous art with price tags attached — something that many museums do privately because of insurance reasons but almost never release publicly.

Among the top works: Pieter Bruegel the Elder's ''The Wedding Dance,” one of only five Bruegel works in an American museum, would bring $100 million to $200 million if sold, according to Christie’s. An 1887 van Gogh self-portrait was valued at $80 million to $150 million. Rembrandt's ''The Visitation'' would bring $50 million to $90 million. And Matisse's ''The Window,'' the first painting by the artist to be purchased by an American museum, would fetch $40 million to $80 million.

Overall, Christie’s estimated that selling the pieces would raise between $500 and $900 million — an amount that Orr acknowledged would not make much of a dent in Detroit’s estimated $18 billion in debts. But he still refused to rule out selling the art.

Meanwhile, lawyers representing the city’s creditors accused the auction house of lowballing its estimates and said that all the art, not just the items purchased with city cash, should be considered salable. That includes Rivera’s murals, even if they are actually a part of the building and difficult to remove. But as many people have learned in Detroit in recent years, nothing is safe — not even the bricks in the walls.

That leaves the DIA under a cloud for the time being, and Beal, who used to wander through the galleries to enjoy a comforting refuge in the art, now finds himself leading tours of lawmakers from all over the state curious, he said, “to know what all this fuss is about.”

But there is one person who hasn’t visited: Orr. According to Beal, the emergency manager has “made it clear that until this was all over he wasn’t going to be visiting the museum.”

“I presume he wouldn’t want to be caught by a journalist,” Beal said.