Friday, August 2, 2013

Troubles at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Posted By on Fri, Aug 2, 2013 at 9:16 AM

Poor Detroit.

It's really not our problem, but it's not easy to see a city file for bankruptcy, especially after everyone seemed so optimistic last year about the Motor City's possible comeback.

But shit's bad. So bad, in fact, that the municipally owned Detroit Institute of Art Museum may be forced to sell some of its artwork to pay off debt. Naturally, the media is going crazy; troubling reports of possible insolvency from the New York Times to heartbreaking parallel situations being faced by the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle, as Reuters reported.

DIA, as it's known out there, is a big deal. Its 60,000-piece collection is estimated to value around $1 billion, and it's an encyclopedic institution as well, meaning it has a little bit of everything: Western art, modern all the way back to antiquity; non-Western art; decorative art; medieval armor; the list goes on. Plus, those are big name works as well, as I gushed about after seeing it myself last year.

click to enlarge A wall from DIA's "Detroit Industry" mural by Diego Rivera, another of its unique holdings. - EDIE ADELSTEIN
  • Edie Adelstein
  • A wall from DIA's "Detroit Industry" mural by Diego Rivera, another of its unique holdings.

All that means it could be potentially profitable, especially given that Detroit's creditors are in trouble too. As DIA COO Annmarie Erickson from the Reuters piece put it: " Our situation is in some respects just as dire as that of the creditors."

The problem, among many, is that it could be a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul situation, in which Detroit pays off its debts but loses one of its top attractions — and one of the country's top-six art museums — and thus loses future funding. However, with an $18 billion bill to pay, it may be one way to stop the bleeding and hedge the additional budget cuts Detroit city workers are facing, a problem, that to some, is more pressing than the artwork.

One thing that hasn't been touched on, however, is how Detroit can make money off of DIA's works. As a member of the American Alliance of Museums (formerly the American Museum Association, a highly-respected accreditation organization that has close to 17,000 members), it must adhere to AAM's ethics code and is thus forbidden to simply sell artwork to get out of the red.

Firstly, it needs to be deaccessioned from the museum's permanent collection, and upon its sale, those funds must be used to purchase new or care for existing artwork, and nothing else, not even museum operations. However, per this 2011 Times article on the topic, many museums have just ignored that, citing the need to keep themselves afloat in rough economic times. Plus, it's not illegal, and AAM doesn't automatically punish museums either. Apparently, DIA has bigger problems than AAMs rules.

click to enlarge An anonymous portrait by Velazquez at DIA.
  • An anonymous portrait by Velazquez at DIA.

Not everyone thinks things are so bad for DIA. Its own museum director Graham W.J. Beal wrote a response to the Times following its "Death of a Museum" article urging readers not to panic. Beal insisted things are OK, and that DIA's "financial situation is more secure than it has been for 40 years." He also points out: "Little or no emphasis is given to the state attorney general’s opinion that, as an asset held in the public trust, the art collection is immune to sale for the purpose of settling debts."

As the financial sector learned a few years ago, nothing is too big to fail, and DIA, sadly, could be the next example, state attorney-general opinions aside.

Here, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (though a fraction of DIA's size) is safe from municipal responsibilities, being a private nonprofit. Yet if Colorado Springs found itself in a situation like Detroit's, and had the opportunity to sell the FAC's Sargent or Chihulys to repay debt, would it be a wise move? Better, imagine this happening to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, which does belong to the city. What if it followed in the footsteps of the defunct Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science, which sold its holdings and is now commercial office space?

Detroit will show the country a lot over the next few months.

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