‘Detroit Art City’: The story of a town on the verge of losing more than just its van Gogh

“Detroit Art City: The Detroit Institute of Arts Story,” a documentary by Detroit Public Television, tells of the story of the one of America’s most significant art collections and how it’s fate came to rest in a legal battle over the Motor City’s future. Watch the full film above.

Among the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection is “Self Portrait,” the first Vincent Van Gogh painting acquired by a U.S. museum. Photo by the DIA

Artwork at the Detroit Institute of Arts is in the midst of a tug of war. As city officials hammer out of the terms of its Chapter 9 bankruptcy — the largest of its kind — the issue of whether to use the pieces housed at one of the nation’s most well-regarded museum’s remains at the crux.

On Dec. 3, a federal judge gave the go-ahead for Detroit to shed its debt of an estimated $17 billion. After the ruling, Kevin Orr, the city’s emergency manager, told the Detroit Free Press editorial board and reporters that he “would like to find a way to monetize the Detroit Institute of Arts.”

The museum responded in opposition. “The museum’s collection is the result of more than a century of public and private charitable contributions for the benefit of the public. Protected by a charitable and public trust, the collection has survived several municipal fiscal crises and financial downturns, including the Great Depression, free from threats to its existence.”

So the museum is fighting back. The Detroit Free Press reported last week that the DIA is working to broker a deal where it would raise $500 million from nonprofit foundations in order to become a nonprofit itself. The arrangement would separate the museum from the city and generate money to assist in the bankruptcy. If the deal passes, the museum would ensure the safety of its collection from creditors.

Beloved by Detroiters, the DIA’s most famous installation is from Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who painted the murals “Detroit Industry” in the early 1930s. Photo by DPTV

So how did all of this squabbling over the museum’s collection of masterpieces by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Diego Rivera come about?

“Detroit Art City,” a new documentary premiering on Detroit Public Television and produced by Genevieve Savage, hopes to answer that question. Narrated by Angelo B. Henderson, a Pulitzer Prize winner and Detroit radio host, the film tells the story of the DIA’s relationship to the city and how its fate was placed in the hands of a bankruptcy judge and an emergency manager.

“Detroit Art City: The Detroit Institute of Arts Story” will air Wednesday, Dec. 11 at 9 p.m. EST on WTVS. You can also watch a live stream from Detroit Public Television.