The city of Detroit has declared itself bankrupt. It also has a world class collection of art at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). The first to consult about what should happen to Detroit’s art must surely be Detroiters themselves. Yet one remarkable arts blogger referred to the potential sale of art as a “rape of its collection”. This kind of angry criticism reveals much more about the sorry state of certain arts commentary than it does the difficult decisions confronting Detroit. Because the same critics who pile on the city leaders in Detroit are often the same who angrily criticize efforts by nations of origin like Italy for attempting to repatriate works of art that have left the country. You cannot have it both ways. There must be some organizing logic other than: “I want it here”.
Deaccession is the term used to describe the practice by Museums of removing works of art from their collection. Its first appearance that I have found came from a 1972 New York Times article by arts critic John Canaday who criticized the plans by the Museum of Modern Art to dispose of works in the permanent collection. In 2008 when the University of Iowa considered selling all or part of its interest in Jackson Pollock’s Mural (c. 1943), estimated to be worth as much as $100 million, it was met by a host of angry critics and plans to sell the work have been swept aside. But the situation in Detroit is different. The city of Detroit has fundamentally changed, and the question its leaders and citizens must decide is whether it should continue to hold on to its World-class collection of art which was acquired during more prosperous times. Or should it make the hard decision to sell some or all of its permanent collection to ease the short-term financial difficulty.
Kevyn Orr, the city of Detroit’s Emergency Manager has put forth tentative proposals to deaccession some of the works in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts in order to ameliorate Detroit’s staggering budget crisis. Going so far as to enlist Christie’s auction house to evaluate the salability of the DIA’s collection of art. The impetus for these difficult decisions is not a lack of art-appreciation for Detroit. Rather staggering debt. In September the Detroit Free Press reported that the city of Detroit is broke, and has unfunded liability of between $18 and $20 billion. The question posed by many has been even if the works of art are sold, would the funds be used to even pay down parts of this unfunded liability like worker-pensions; or would the funds merely go to the first creditor in line. I’ll leave to bankruptcy experts that question. More interesting is whether if the city of Detroit could sell works of art to satisfy these crushing obligations, should it? The citizens of Detroit have seemingly voted to hold on to their art. They voted in August of 2012 to impose a tax that would be used to help support the DIA. And arts critics elsewhere have with near-unanimity criticized any hint that the decision to deaccession be revisited.
No art lover welcomes the removal of works of art from the public sphere. And the sale of art in Detroit would surely be seen as a crushing and tangible indication of just how far the city of Detroit has fallen. In an article which appeared in the Journal of Art, Antiquity & Law, I examined the process of deaccession and proposed a managed process for deaccession. I argued that the system of export regulations for works of art in the United Kingdom offers the best possible model to ensure when works of art are deaccessioned, that they can stay in the public trust. But that is a different question than the one Detroit faces. It is deciding whether to deaccession at all.
The unhelpful standards provided by the arts community come from the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors. Both sets of ethical principles are fundamentally misguided. They seek mainly to limit the purposes to which the funds gained in a deaccession can be used. The only purpose which deaccession funds may be used is to purchase more art. That’s all. No matter how dire the financial catastrophe or what other wonderful purpose those funds may be used for, the funds are off limits. Essentially the arts community doesn’t trust itself with its own checkbook.
Michael Kinsley, an editor at the New Republic has argued that skilled art-reproducers be employed to produce museum-quality reproductions of a handful of works in the DIA’s permanent collection, which could then be sold to pay down some of Detroit’s debts. A controversial and thought-provoking idea to be sure, but one that has a corollary in the art market. Auction houses will sometimes commission reproductions of works of art that are auctioned off by private individuals. A reproduction commemorating the sale of a valuable work of art. That suggestion was pilloried by many, but I want to focus on the response of the L.A. Times arts critic Christopher Knight. He argued the proposal was little more than another in a line of “know-nothings writing about art and museums”. Yet a few years earlier in discussing the claims made by Francesco Rutelli in attempting to return works of art looted from Italy from the Getty, Rutelli’s arguments were classified as a mere “political stunt”. It seems to me you cannot have it both ways. You cannot point to other cities or nations and tell them what they should do with their art, with no internal logic or consistency. If the city of Detroit should hang on to its art because it’s a powerful symbol of its identity and commitment to culture, why shouldn’t a nation like Italy be able to do the same?
(a version of this post will appear in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of art crime)