TOPICS > Arts

Bankrupt Detroit considers putting a price on its priceless art collection

December 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The masterpieces housed at the Detroit Institute of the Arts have been valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. While the collection is a major source of civic pride, it could soon be tapped as an essential source of income to help pay Detroit's debts. Jeffrey Brown talks to Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press.

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: more fallout from the Detroit bankruptcy story. Residents now face the prospect of losing art masterpieces owned by the city itself.

Jeffrey Brown fills in the picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s one of the country’s great museums now in a most unusual and potentially dire situation. The building and several thousand works of art in the collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts are owned by the city. And the city manager overseeing the bankruptcy has said it’s possible that some those works could be sold to pay off creditors.

Our colleague’s at Detroit Public Television produced a documentary about the museum and its plight.

In this excerpt, museum director Graham Beal and others argue against such a move.

GRAHAM W.J. BEAL, Detroit Institute of Arts: We were the first art museum in America to acquire a van Gogh in 1920. We were the first art museum to acquire a Matisse in 1922.

We have the finest collection of Italian sculpture in the Western Hemisphere. We’re still the only major art museum to have a department of African-American art.

The argument more is — tends to be, well, you have got four van Goghs. You know, why don’t you just sell one of those, because you have still got three? It’s a total failure of public trust to do that. It’s the most damning admission of failure.

There’s no precedent of a city selling a collection in that way. There would be the argument from the attorney general that you can’t liquidate that stuff. It doesn’t belong to the city, in the way that a fire engine does. It belongs to the public. That’s why money was given. That’s why works of art were given. And we’re going to stop you from doing it.

HEASTER WHEELER, Assistant County Executive, Wayne County, Mich.: Imagine a facility like the DIA that embraces and celebrates European art and African-American art and Latin or Hispanic art and Asian art and Arab-American art. That’s the uniqueness of the American experience, is the fact that everybody’s here and everybody’s welcome.

WOMAN: These are things that, again, you can’t buy nowadays. If you didn’t have them, there’s no way you could buy them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just today, Christie’s completed its report for city manager Kevyn Orr on some 2,800 city-owned artworks, setting a value for them at between $450 million and $870 million. The auction house also presented Orr with several other options that could avoid selling the work.

Mark Stryker covers the arts for The Detroit Free Press and joins us now.

Well, Mark, we just heard some of the arguments against selling the art. How much pressure is there to at least look at selling some of it, and where is it coming from?

MARK STRYKER, The Detroit Free Press: Well, there’s extraordinary amount of pressure to look at selling the art.

The fact is, the city does own the art, which is unusual. Most civic museums are not literally owned by the city. They’re independent nonprofits. But, here, the collection is owned by the city. And that makes it a city asset, which means, in bankruptcy, it’s vulnerable to sale. And you have creditors, including city pensioners and retirees, who are pushing for a sale, as well as bondholders, to recover more of their losses.

Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager, has been charged with restructuring the city finances. He has to find money. There’s a big pool of it at the DIA. He needs to put together a plan that creditors will accept and that the judge in the bankruptcy court will approve. And he doesn’t think he can do it without monetizing the art in some way.

And so he’s essentially told the museum he wants $500 million from them, however he can get it, whether selling or some other mechanism.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so Christie’s took a look at some of the work, right, just a very small percentage of the actual collection. Tell us what they found.

MARK STRYKER: Well, Christie’s looked at about 5 percent of the total collection of those 66,000 roughly works. So we’re talking about 2,800 works. These were workings that were bought directly by the city, mostly in the 1920s, when the city was flush with auto cash.

And what they found was as much as almost $900 million worth of art. Most of the value is included in 11 really standout, signature works in the museum. These are things like Bruegel’s great The Wedding Dance, which they valued at $100 million to $200 million — $100 million, rather, to $200 million, and van Gogh’s remarkable self-portrait, which was valued somewhere between $80 million and $150 million, the Matisse, the window, a Rembrandt painting, an extraordinary Michelangelo drawing, Degas, Monet and the like. These are among the top works.

They valuated — essentially, they gave, in the report, line-item individual values for everything in the museum that was city-bought, over $50,000 — worth more than $50,000.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Christie’s, I saw also, as have others in recent months, offered some alternatives, I guess, for what could take place. What else is on the table as possibilities?

MARK STRYKER: Well, the most frequently cited kind of alternatives for sale are things like using the art as collateral for loans, trying to rent parts of the collection, trying to — maybe some sort of a scheme where wealthy patrons would buy the art, and then loan it back to the city — rather, loan it back to the museum.

All of these things, though, the museum would argue, and much of our reporting, frankly, at The Free Press has borne out that all of these kinds of things with would still leave the art vulnerable to sale. It would still put in jeopardy the collection. It wouldn’t raise nearly the kind of money that people think it might.

And one of the most important factors here in Detroit is that there is a tri-county tax millage, property tax that funds the museum, and right now accounts for about 70 percent of the museum’s budget. And if there is any art sold or a move to monetize in any way, the counties have said they would repeal the tax. And that effectively could shutter the museum. So, it’s a very delicate, very difficult situation for the museum.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you know, I know that all of this has the museum world, and I mean outside Detroit, in a state of outrage over the possibility.

How much pressure is — from the outside is being felt in the city? And what kind of response is there?

MARK STRYKER: Well, the pressure outside is not nearly, I think, the issue as the pressure inside.

I mean, the fact is that the emergency manager needs to get a deal. And he has to put together a plan that the judge will approve. The emergency manager, by the way, in this case is the only one who can sell art. The judge, neither — in a municipal bankruptcy, neither the judge nor the creditors can literally force the sale.

But they can put pressure on Orr to monetize the art and can put pressure on the judge to deny a plan if they think it’s not fair. And then, among the city residents, you know, you have different factions. There is a great outpouring of support for the museum. But at the same time, there are folks, particularly city pensioners, who represent maybe 20,000 or so of the 700,000 people in the city.

And those pensions for those retirees and municipal fire and police are at risk. And people think that, if it comes to art or pensions, you should go with pensions.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mark, just in a word or two in our last seconds here, when — do we know when a decision will be made or some kind of deal made?

MARK STRYKER: Well, there are two things.

One, the emergency manager has said he wants to have a plan in place, or submit a plan by early January. At the same time, we have a side mediation going on with members of national local foundations trying to raise money for the museum that might create a way out, where the foundations would put up as much as $500 million. It would go to pensions. And that would take the art off the table.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mark Stryker of The Detroit Free Press, thanks so much.

MARK STRYKER: You’re welcome. Good to be with you.