Why Detroit’s art must stay

By Felix Salmon
June 18, 2013
say that the Michigan attorney general is "absolutely right" that the art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts cannot be sold to satisfy the city's financial obligations, I mean that he's right both legally and normatively.

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Let me clear this up so that Donn Zaretsky can have no doubt. When I say that the Michigan attorney general is “absolutely right” that the art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts cannot be sold to satisfy the city’s financial obligations, I mean that he’s right both legally and normatively.

Zaretsky is a longstanding critic of the laws and norms surrounding deaccessioning — the term of art for when museums sell off parts of their collections. Earlier this month, he gained a high-profile convert in the person of Virginia Postrel, who made the case that DIA should sell its paintings “to satisfy Detroit’s creditors”, just so long as the paintings remained in an American public museum somewhere. In the conversation which followed, Tyler Cowen had a certain amount of sympathy for Postrel while saying that such an action would essentially ratify the end of civilization in Detroit; he also worried that such an action might have a chilling effect on future art donations to museums. And Marion Maneker proposed that DIA should essentially become an art-lending library, making large sums of money from sending its masterpieces out on worldwide tours.

I’m a fan of the lending-library model, in principle — although no such lending institution really exists. Only Eli Broad ever really suggested it in a serious manner, and he ended up doing such a big U-turn on the idea that he’s basically now attempting to become a borrower, rather than a lender, of great art. In England, regional art museums are weaning themselves off government support by sending art on loan to China — but DIA has already faced the issue of receiving no government support, and managed to solve it in a particularly democratic and elegant manner. (Basically, it receives up to $23 million a year from three local counties, in return for giving those counties’ residents free admission to the museum.)

The point here is that decisions about selling art can and should only be made at the museum level. Back in 2008, for instance, after the University of Iowa was severely damaged by floods, there was a brief suggestion that maybe the university should sell off Mural, its masterpiece by Jackson Pollock. And while there might be arguments that this particular masterpiece belongs somewhere else, it was always clear (to me, at least) that any such decision should not be made by the Iowa legislature.

Even the threat that Detroit might attempt to sell the art in DIA is causing serious harm to the museum, which is now spending more management time on hiring bankruptcy lawyers than it is on programming — despite the fact that the museum’s finances and attendance are both pretty healthy.

The Michigan AG has declared that “the art collection is held in charitable trust for the people of Michigan and cannot be sold for purposes other than the acquisition of art”. That’s pretty unambiguous, legally.* As for the norms involved, the one thing which is conspicuous by its absence from Postrel’s argument (or anybody else’s, for that matter) is any explanation of why Detroit’s unsecured creditors should have more right to these paintings than the museum does, or than the people of Michigan do. There’s no lien on this art: the whole point of being an unsecured creditor is that you can not take ownership of any particular asset if there’s a default. It’s conceivable that there are certain assets a bankruptcy judge might force Detroit to liquidate in Chapter 9 proceedings — but it’s pretty much inconceivable that those assets would include paintings in DIA.

So why does Postrel think that a little local insolvency is both a necessary and sufficient condition to break up one of America’s great municipal art collections? When she advocates the voluntary sale of kidneys, I’m with her — everybody benefits, in that case. But what she’s proposing in Detroit is not voluntary at all: she’s proposing that DIA be forced, against its will, and against the clearly expressed will of its citizens, to part with deeply beloved art works. In return, it would get — well, nothing, really: all the proceeds would end up being pocketed by the insurance companies which wrapped Detroit’s municipal bonds.

It’s easy to see how art-market types like Zaretsky and Maneker love the idea of freeing up a lot of the art which is currently in museums. Most of the money in the art world comes from buying and selling art, but nearly all of the greatest art the world has ever seen is in museums, where it’s never going to get sold. Back in 2006, there was a case for creating a new norm, whereby museums could sell art only to other museums, so as to “allow for a more comfortable distribution of resources between cash poor asset rich institutions and asset poor cash rich ones, allowing them to trade to mutual advantage”. But since then we’ve seen dozens of major art collectors create their own museums, to the point at which the distinction between a museum and a private collection has become impossibly muddied.

And ultimately there’s something to be said for the idea that there are some things money can’t buy. Most of the discussion on this topic is highly respectful of international boundaries, interestingly enough — Postrel suggested that DIA’s works be sold to an American museum, rather than to, say, a cash-rich institution in the middle east. And I doubt she would support the idea that Greece should pay its debts by selling its antiquities to foreign collectors. But if we’re going to say that art should stay within the US — even when it was created in France — we’re basically saying that it should not, after all, go to the institution with the deepest pockets, and that national interests trump financial concerns. Well, there are municipal interests, too: the art was bought by Detroit, not by the federal government.

It’s fantastic that Detroit has a world-class art collection, and that its art doesn’t naturally gravitate towards the richest cities in the country. Postrel says that Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth have institutions which fall under the general rubric of being “asset poor cash rich”, and which are natural homes to DIA’s collection — but the fact is that both cities have large amounts of great art already. Do you find the Getty’s collection a little thin? Just go down the hill to LACMA, and you’ll find enough world-class art to last you a month.

Putting restrictions on the sale of art will never have great appeal to libertarians like Postrel, or even Cowen — it’s the art-world equivalent of rent control. In that sense, Detroit being able to hold on to its art is a bit like poor San Franciscans being able to hold on to their Mission apartments. It might not be economically efficient, but it’s a sign that you won’t ever be able to buy a masterpiece through the tactical acquisition of distressed municipal debt. Detroit is not rich financially; it probably never will be again. But it’s rich in art. And no bankruptcy judge can take that away from it.

Update: Donn Zaretsky points out that my argument is a bit circular here: I’m quoting the Michigan AG to support my contention that the Michigan AG is right.

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