Accessibility links

Detroit Art Institute at Center of Bankruptcy Debate

The Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, also known as the DIA, is home to valuable paintings, sculptures, and artifacts from around the world. But what is housed there belongs to the city of Detroit. With the city filing bankruptcy protection, many are concerned the collections could be sold to pay Detroit’s creditors.
Inside its massive halls are more than 60,000 objects that make up one of the top collections of art in the United States.
Visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum can see up close the brush strokes of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait” or William-Adolphe Bouguereau's “Nut Gatherers” which is so finely detailed it looks more like a photograph than a painting.
It was the large wall murals of Detroit’s auto industry, painted by Diego Rivera, that attracted Virginia-based airline pilot Terrence O’Toole.
“And I thought it was interesting to come in here and see the murals depicting the cultural diversity of the plant,” O'Toole explained.
If you look closely as you walk the halls of the DIA, there are placards that describe each artifact on display.
Underneath the title of many of the pieces are four important words - “City of Detroit Purchase.”
What sets the DIA apart from most major museums is that the city owns the DIA building and its collections.
Even before Detroit’s emergency manager Kevyn Orr filed for bankruptcy protection, he inquired about the Institute’s inventory, setting the art world - and Detroit’s citizens - into a frenzy.
“It’s a slam against all the citizens of this city and a slam against the citizens of the whole area here," said bookseller John King, a lifelong Detroit resident who stayed in the city as its population dramatically declined. He said the DIA is important to what is left of Detroit's spirit, and hopes creditors don’t force the sale of its assets to pay the city’s debt.
“It’s sad they’re even talking about going after that asset," King said. "I, mean they have other assets they could go after, and they shouldn’t really be touching the Detroit Institute of Arts.”
Finance professor Amiyatosh Purnanandan of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan says the total value of the DIA’s collection is far less than what Detroit owes its creditors.
“You’re looking at $18 billion of debt," Purnanandan said. "The Art museum will fetch you about $1 to $2 billion. Even if you sell that, it’s not going to solve your problems.”
“To have to sell it piecemeal would be sad," commented visitor O’Toole, adding that selling the collection could also undermine the very thing Detroit needs at the moment.
“It brings visitors, it brings cash flow to this community, which this city is in desperate need of some cash flow,” he noted.
The non-profit group ArtServe Michigan says the state earned $2 billion in tourism money in 2011, based mostly on cultural institutions, like the Detroit Institute of Arts. Not only would selling the DIA’s collection hurt tourism income, experts say such a sale would mean a large amount of rare and important artwork would flood the market, potentially undermining the city’s ability to get the best price possible for its holdings.
  • 16x9 Image

    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.