In a dramatic message concerning one of the most emotional issues in the city's bankruptcy case, Detroit Institute of Arts Director Graham Beal warns that the sale of any of the DIA's artwork likely would result in the museum shutting its doors.
Beal minces no words in his September letter on the DIA website, telling supporters that he remains adamant that selling art as part of Detroit's Chapter 9 bankruptcy is the nuclear option that would have catastrophic results.
"Such an action would threaten the millage proceeds upon which we now rely to operate this remarkable museum," Beal wrote. "Selling any art would be tantamount to closing the museum, hardly an outcome in keeping with the EM's mission of putting Detroit back on the road to prosperity."
Beal added: "We have no intention of breaching the most fundamental tenet of the art museum world: that art in the collection can only be sold to acquire more (and better) art."
While there are no plans to sell DIA artwork, the museum is owned by the city of Detroit, and Emergency Manager Kevin Orr has said the building and its art are considered city assets and could be in play as creditors seek to recover the $18 billion the city owes them. Orr's office has hired Christie's, the New York auction house, to appraise the work.
Beal says a sale would torpedo the millage passed last summer in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties that raises $23 million a year for museum operations.
The art in question is that which the city of Detroit bought with its own funds during the city's explosive growth years, mainly between 1922 and 1931. That's about 3,300 pieces, Beal said.
But he explained that even art that carries the credit line, "city of Detroit purchase," has complications that would raise legal questions if it came to a sale.
"Patrons such as Ralph Harmon Booth personally contributed to a City of Detroit art purchase fund or lent money to enable "City purchases" that seems never to have been repaid," he wrote.
"I've also learned that the purchase of our wonderful ceiling painting by Tintoretto, apparently using city funds, was only permitted by the Italian government of the time, on condition that it never leave the DIA building."
Interestingly, Beal said neither he nor the DIA staff has had much contact with the emergency manager's office.
"Most of what we learn has come from reading the newspaper--like everyone else!--or from Christie's."
Beal said he can't divulge the precise battle plan the DIA is pursuing, but he said "a good deal of time and energy has gone into laying out various strategies, depending on what happens next."
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has issued an opinion that the museum's entire collection is held in a charitable trust, which protects the collection for the benefit of the people, and that Michigan law prohibits the sale of the DIA's collection to pay the city's creditors.
"As I understand things, the EM is subject to Michigan law," Beal wrote.
"Still it's a complex and confusing situation, with very little in the way of precedent to guide us."