Focus, Arts & Entertainment, and Government

Detroit bankruptcy puts its art collection in peril

GRAM’s Friis-Hansen lobbies against selling DIA’s collection.

December 13, 2013
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Grand Rapids Art Museum
Dana Friis-Hansen, executive director of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, said he has reached out to Detroit Institute of Art officials to offer his support. Courtesy Rockford Construction
Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has not taken the option of selling artwork from the Detroit Institute of Art’s prominent collection off the table, though many in the city and the state have vowed to fight any attempt at selling the museum’s works, including Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Schuette issued a formal opinion in June saying the DIA’s works cannot be sold to satisfy the city’s debts and obligations. 

That has not stopped Orr from having the collection assessed by Christie’s auction house, which completed its assessment last week. The evaluation includes more than 2,500 works purchased by the city, including paintings by Van Gogh, Matisse, Bruegel, Rembrandt and others. Christie’s estimated the value of the accessed works at between $450 million and $870 million.

Other options are being considered for how the collection might be leveraged without selling it, but there are risks and downsides to those options that aren’t gaining them any more popularity than selling the artwork.

The DIA strongly opposes the sale of any works, and reiterated its opinion in a written statement: “The museum collection is a cultural resource, not a municipal asset.”

Grand Rapids Art Museum Executive Director Dana Friis-Hansen called the current situation dangerous, but also seemed optimistic the DIA artwork ultimately would not be put up for sale, citing Schuette’s opinion on the topic, specifically.

Friis-Hansen said he has reached out to the DIA director and offered his support, but there isn’t much that can be done but to wait and watch the local process play out.

While he couldn’t offer much in terms of the DIA’s predicament, Friis-Hansen did say it has often been suggested that art museums sell works of art in order to support operations, but it is considered unethical to take that route and could result in a museum losing its authorization and accreditation.

“The museum professional ethics determined that if you do (sell) a work, you have to go through a particular process,” he said. “It’s basically: Have a policy that is part of the bylaws that says on what occasions could you sell, but it only can be sold to buy more art, not to pay your bills.”

If the DIA were forced to sell artwork, Friis-Hansen believes it could have a negative impact on not only other art museums but also on nonprofits, in general.

“Donors and the public put trust into nonprofit organizations with the assumption that their wishes are going to be fulfilled,” Friis-Hansen said. “People donate works of art and money for the acquisition of works of art with the assumption that they would be held in the public trust according to both nonprofit standards as well as museum standards.

“If the precedent is set that museums are able to be forced to sell their artwork outside of the standard professional practices, then it puts not only all other museums into question, but also churches and all other nonprofits and other organizations.”

Another key issue at stake is that the taxpayers from Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties previously passed a millage to support the DIA for a 10-year period.

“With the recent millage, the citizens have decided to allocate part of their taxes toward supporting that institution. If the works are sold, that millage would be invalidated, and that would mean that not only would you be losing great works of art, but you’d be losing the faith and the support of the people in the area,” Friis-Hansen said.

In return for the millage, residents of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties are given free admission to the DIA. Friis-Hansen said combining that level of accessibility with the DIA’s reputation for education means any loss of work would undermine that commitment and the value of that accessibility.

If any of the works were sold, they would most likely be removed from the public sphere entirely.

“The way the art market happens now with auctions, most of the works that are sold in the top tier go to private collectors outside of the country,” Friis-Hansen said. “Therefore, these fantastic artworks that people have been going to see at the DIA since its start and since they were acquired would disappear into private collections, probably in Russia, China, South America and Europe, and they’d be lost for public enjoyment and education here in Michigan.”

The DIA is not only an important asset for Detroit, it’s also important for Michigan.

“The museum itself is one of the shining lights of United States cultural organizations,” Friis-Hansen said.

“I hear it from people who have never been to Michigan before: They go to the DIA and they (say), ‘Wow, I had no idea there are the great Rivera murals in their collection and, beyond that, great American art or Midwestern art, and beyond that, world art — so many artistic masterpieces, monuments.’ 

“Keeping that together and actually supporting this landmark institution in the future is important, I believe, for keeping Detroit strong. There are a lot of wonderful arts institutions all across the state, but the DIA is definitely a leader in the field.”

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