DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – When Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr says everything’s on the table to dig the city out of debt, he’s not kidding.
Orr is looking at whether the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts should be sold as city assets that could possibly cover Detroit’s long-term debt, which is estimated at about $15 billion.
Orr spokesman Bill Nowling told the Detroit Free Press the museum may face exposure to creditors if Detroit seeks bankruptcy protection.
“We have no interest in selling art, I want to make that pretty clear. But it is an asset of the city to a certain degree,” Nowling said. “As much as it would pain us to do it, and it does, I’m a great lover of art and so is Kevyn, we’ve got a responsibility to rationalize all the assets of the city and find out what the worth is and what the city holds.”
Amid the possibility, the museum said it has hired New York bankruptcy attorney Richard Levin to suggest ways to protect the collection from possible losses. Levin has been involved in bankruptcy case involving General Motors and other high-profile cases.
The DIA issued the following statement on the issue:
“The DIA strongly believes that the museum and the City hold the museum’s art collection in trust for the public. The DIA manages and cares for that collection according to exacting standards required by the public trust, our profession and the Operating Agreement with the City. According to those standards, the City cannot sell art to generate funds for any purpose other than to enhance the collection. We remain confident that the City and the emergency financial manager will continue to support the museum in its compliance with those standards, and together we will continue to preserve and protect the cultural heritage of Detroit.”
The city owns the Detroit Institute of Arts’ building and collection, while daily operations are overseen by a nonprofit. The scope of Orr’s power as an emergency manager to sell the collection or any other major assets, such as the city’s water department, likely would be tested in court.
It’s a move that’s certainly not sitting well with philanthropist and DIA patron Alfred Taubman, who said “it would be a crime” to sell any of the museum’s treasures to satisfy city creditors.
“I’m sure Mr. Orr, once he thinks about it, will certainly not choose that as one of the assets,” Taubman told the Free Press. “It’s not just an asset of Detroit. It’s an asset of the country.”
Much like people disagree on what is considered art, WWJ listeners are divided on this DIA issue. Here are just some of the comments we received:
— “I don’t think they should do that because it’s not the DIA’s fault that the city messed up the budget.”
— “Absolutely it’s OK. The city is in crisis and they have to restructure. Sell the art, repeal the tax.”
— “The city of Detroit holds an obligation to all citizens of Michigan and they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do.”
— “Are you kidding? The one place where we can go to get some kind of sophistication in the city and they want to sell it off? Ridiculous.”
— “The art should be sold, along with all the parks and any waterfront property.”
— “I guess we have a Marie Antoinette economy going in Detroit. Let them eat cake if they ain’t got no bread.”
— “The museum hasn’t caused this crisis. Would Rome sell the Colosseum if in fact they had a financial issue?”
— “Drastic situations call for drastic measures.”
— “Taking away some of that art would hurt the city and the people that come out to see things.”
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in March appointed Orr as emergency manager, giving Orr the final say on Detroit’s fiscal matters. The city’s budget deficit could reach $380 million by July 1, it could run out of cash before the end of the year, and bankruptcy hasn’t been ruled out.
Under a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing, neither a judge nor creditors can force the city to liquidate its assets, but bankruptcy experts tell the Free Press that a judge and creditors could push for a sale. Some creditors have already asked Orr whether the DIA collection is “on the table,” Nowling said.
Founded in 1885, the DIA covers 658,000 square feet that includes more than 100 galleries and 60,000 works of art. According to its website, the museum is among the top six in the United States. Its collection includes works by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and scores of others. It displays American, European, modern and contemporary art, as well as significant African, Asian, Native American, Oceanic, Islamic and ancient collections.
The museum doesn’t estimate how much its collection might be worth, and any sale price for specific items would depend on market conditions.
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