These days, the message screens above the main ticket desk at the Detroit Institute of Arts regularly flash the phrase “Thank You Voters.” Unusual as it may seem among announcements about exhibitions and events at this world-class museum, it belongs there. On Aug. 7, 2012, the citizens of the three counties that contain and surround Detroit — Wayne, Oakland and Macomb — voted in favor of a 10-year commitment to a small increase in real estate taxes that would guarantee the institute $23 million a year, roughly two-thirds of its annual operating budget.
Because of these voters, a museum whose building and collection were created and sustained by a patchwork of money controlled by city and state officials — as well as donations from loyal patrons with names like Ford, Dodge, Scripps and Firestone — will be primarily and more directly supported by its public. The vote, an unusual display of public support, has given the Detroit Institute of Arts a greater financial stability than it has enjoyed in years.
So it is all the sadder that in late May the Detroit Institute began to be cruelly undermined as the city, once an epicenter of American industry and industriousness, hit bottom after years of mismanagement and shrinking population.
In that ever-lengthening narrative titled When Bad Things Happen to Good Museums, few developments are as deeply alarming and as cluelessly self-destructive as the recent suggestion that the City of Detroit, which owns the institute’s building and its collection, should sell some of the art to help cover about $18 billion of municipal debts. Were this to happen, it would be a betrayal of public trust and donors’ bequests and a violation of the museum’s nonprofit status. It also makes no economic sense. The Detroit Institute of Arts is one of the few remaining jewels in Detroit’s tattered identity, and is essential to the city’s recovery.
Detroit finally applied for bankruptcy in July. But even before that, Kevyn Orr, the city’s state-appointed emergency manager, raised the idea of selling works, as if the institute were a goose whose golden eggs included art by Rembrandt, van Gogh, Caravaggio, van Eyck and Breughel.
Bill Schuette, Michigan’s attorney general, issued a statement that such a sale would not be legal. Nonetheless, citing the city’s responsibility to appraise all its “assets,” Mr. Orr enlisted the auction house Christie’s to appraise its holdings for a reported fee of $200,000, a process, barely begun, that will take weeks.
Of course, Christie’s is doing what it is built to do, but that doesn’t eliminate the smell of amoral opportunism. Perhaps the time will soon come when financially troubled cities and states will call upon it for appraisals of things like Central Park, or Faneuil Hall in Boston.
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