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Deal Emerges to Save Detroit Institute of Arts Collection

The Detroit Institute of Arts Museum houses one of the top art collections in the world. So when Detroit went bankrupt, that collection - owned by the city - became one of the most controversial issues in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. An emerging deal with several national foundations offers city officials a way out of the crisis, and could ultimately save the museum and its valuable collection.

The art collection housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, or DIA, draws throngs of visitors from around the world each year.

“You can tell the story of Western art through this collection," said Mark Stryker.

Which makes it hard to put a price tag on it, says Detroit Free Press Art Reporter Mark Stryker.

“It’s invaluable, irreplaceable," he said.

But a price is the very thing Detroit’s emergency manager Kevyn Orr seeks as he takes the city through bankruptcy, says Wayne State University Law Professor Laura Bartell.

“At the very beginning of this bankruptcy, Kevyn Orr made it clear that the city of Detroit owned the assets of the DIA," said Bartell.

“It is a city owned collection, and that makes it different from almost every other museum in America, which operate as independent, private nonprofits," said Stryker.

As the complex bankruptcy case winds through federal court, Orr enlisted Christie's auction house to value the collection, with one important caveat.

“He asked Christie's to specifically evaluate only the works in the collection that were bought by the city directly," said Stryker.

That translates into about 2,000 items, roughly five percent of the DIA’s 66,000 works. But it does include some of the premiere pieces, including Vincent Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait with Hat.”

"Christie's evaluated those works to be worth somewhere between $450 million up to about $870 million," said Mark Stryker.

In 2012, voters in three surrounding counties supported a property tax hike to fund the museum in exchange for free admission. Stryker says any sale of the DIA’s assets could inflict more damage than simply losing its important pieces.

“They would rescind the tax if any of the art was sold, so that means that any sale would quite quickly lead to the closure of the museum," he said.

Which means emergency manager Kevyn Orr was stuck between a rock and hard place.

“Would you want to be the man who went down in history as the man who destroyed the Detroit Institute of Arts? I don’t think anybody wants to be in that position. If he can craft a plan of adjustment without selling the DIA’s assets, he’s going to do it," said Laura Bartell.

That plan got a boost in January from several national foundations, including the Ford Foundation and the John S. and James. L Knight Foundation. Together, they’ve pledged about $330 million to keep the DIA’s assets off the auction block.

“The DIA would be spun off from the city to create a separate nonprofit, separate from city control so this kind of situation, the city would never find itself in this situation again," said Stryker.

The amount pledged does fall below Christie’s appraisal of the items, and creditors could seek more money. But the proposed deal offers Orr a way out of the crisis, and Stryker says it is the most promising option on the table to keep the DIA’s art in Detroit.
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    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.