Michigan Attorney General Says No to DIA Art Sale

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Michigan Attorney General Says No to DIA Art Sale
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Detroit Institute of Arts. (Photo courtesy of flickr.com/photos/quickfix.)

Detroit has been buzzing over emergency manager Kevyn Orr's consideration of liquidating parts of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection to pay off city debt. State Attorney General Bill Schuette weighed in on the possible art sale in a recent written statement, saying the DIA treasures could not be sold, reports WILX News 10.

DIA Liquidation

Under Michigan's emergency management law, a state-appointed financial manager can sell, lease, or privatize municipal assets with the approval of the state treasury, says Michigan Radio Newsroom. Detroit owes $15-$17 billion, mostly from unfunded pensions, reports the Detroit Free Press. The DIA is one of city's most valuable treasures, housing some 60,000 pieces. Each of the most valuable items could be worth over $100 million. Orr warned the art museum board recently that the DIA and other assets could be taken over by creditors in the event that the city seeks Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. Neither judge nor creditors can force a sale of assets under bankruptcy. The emergency manager would have to write it into his financial recovery plan. Another Detroit Free Press piece speculated that private museum art gifts would likely be tied up legally, but pieces the museum or city bought could be vulnerable to sale.

AG Speaks Out Against Art Sale

Schuette said that the entire Detroit Institute of Arts collection is "held by the City of Detroit in charitable trust for the people of Michigan." As such, no piece may be "sold, conveyed, or transferred" to meet Detroit's financial obligations or debt. Schuette wrote that he appreciates Detroit's financial difficulties and that residents have faced many challenges, adding, "Yet in the 128 years since the creation of the Detroit Institute of Arts, at no time have the people demanded that their most precious cultural resources be sold in order to satisfy financial obligations. To the contrary, the citizens of this State recognize that abandoning or selling the public's artwork would damage not only the City's but the State's cultural commonwealth."

Art Sale Repercussions

The DIA is one of Michigan's best-kept secrets. I polled 10 locals from around the state. Only two had ever heard of it, and only one had visited. None, however, thought selling the collection would be a good idea. I talked to Detroiter and art student Shaynel Williams what she thought of the sale. "It would be like selling your wedding ring to make a car payment," she said.

It's not just the loss of public assets that worries people. Crain's Detroit Business reports that board members predict that the museum itself would likely close if the collection was sold, losing revenue and decreasing tourism. Residents in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties enjoy free DIA admission, thanks to a millage passed recently. Any sale could hurt funding from counties.

A teacher, social activist, arts geek, and Michigan native, Marilisa Sachteleben writes about education in her state's most pivotal city of Detroit.

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