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August 2, 2013

TT: Rembrandt at risk

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column, I offer my thoughts on the citywide financial crisis that threatens to swallow up the Detroit Institute of Arts. Here's an excerpt.

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By now, everybody in the world knows that the city of Detroit has finally filed for bankruptcy--and everybody in the art world knows that its museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, is in deep trouble.

Here's why:

• Detroit owes roughly $18 billion that it doesn't have.

• The 60,000-plus works of art in the DIA's collection are owned by the city, not the museum (as is normally the case).

• According to the Detroit Free Press, the 38 most important pieces have a market value of about $2.5 billion.

Rembrandt_The_Visitation-386x450.jpgWhat next? Rembrandt's "The Visitation" and van Gogh's "Self-Portrait" might not wind up on the auction block. Kevyn Orr, Detroit's emergency manager, has not yet said that he plans to sell any art. Steven Rhodes, the bankruptcy judge, can't force the DIA to sell specific assets in order to settle the city's debts. Neither can Detroit's secured creditors, who have first dibs on the proceeds from any such sale. And Bill Schuette, Michigan's attorney general, claims that it's illegal for the city to sell art because the DIA is holding it in the public trust. But it's Judge Rhodes, not Mr. Schuette, who'll make that call. Every asset is up for grabs in a bankruptcy hearing--and in a town so cash-strapped that 40% of the streetlights are out and it takes an hour for the police to show up when you call 911, the pressure on Mr. Orr to gut the DIA will be brutal beyond belief.

Enter the pundits. National Review's John Fund and Bloomberg's Virginia Postrel believe that the city should start selling masterpieces. "It's hard to justify letting the current decay of Detroit worsen while so many of its assets are counted as untouchable and kept off the bankruptcy table," Mr. Fund wrote last week. Ms. Postrel agrees, adding that "the cause of art would be better served if they were sold to institutions in growing cities where museum attendance is more substantial and the visual arts are more appreciated than they've ever been in Detroit." (She'd like to see the DIA's best paintings hanging in Los Angeles or Fort Worth.)

Mr. Fund and Ms. Postrel are right-of-center commentators, but you're going to start hearing similar arguments from the left before long....

Anybody who doesn't want Detroit to sell its art must be prepared to go up against arguments much like these. What's more, the counterarguments will have to persuade locals who know how it feels to call the cops and get a busy signal. In my experience, art lovers aren't accustomed to making that kind of argument, any more than they're accustomed to living in a city without streetlights. Too many of them believe that the value of high art should be self-evident to all right-thinking people. It's not an "argument" to suggest that anyone who advocates selling off the DIA's masterpieces is an art-hating philistine....

Any argument to keep Detroit's masterpieces in Detroit has got to make sense to Detroiters who think that pensions are more important than paintings. Fortunately, such arguments do exist....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted August 2, 2013 12:00 AM

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