I just returned from a week vacationing in the Detroit area. It’s a favorite family vacation spot (yes, really), and one of the biggest reasons is its world-class museums. And perhaps the foremost among these is the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Located in midtown Detroit, the DIA houses famous works from Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Warhol. Arguably its more famous work is a 27-panel fresco by Diego Rivera, a tribute to industry in Detroit. The museum—its beautiful old Beaux-Arts building and its extensive collection—is truly a sight to behold.
Now, I’m a big believer in financial austerity, and I understand that Detroit is in deep financial doo-doo, and that’s putting it mildly. The city filed for bankruptcy in mid-July, and Detroit’s debt stands somewhere between $18 billion and $20 billion. And naturally, talk has turned to how Detroit becomes solvent once again.
That’s where the DIA comes in: it’s possible that at least some of the DIA’s collection, most of which is owned of the city, will be sold off. This talk increased with this week’s news that auction house Christie’s will be coming in to appraise the DIA’s collection. The Detroit Free Press recently asked art dealers from Michigan and New York to assess the value of 38 of the museum’s most famous pieces, and these pieces’ combined worth stands at around $2.5 billion. However, even though selling these pieces would obviously bring in a lot of money, it wouldn’t bring in anywhere near enough to pay off Detroit’s debt. And just as important, it would take away many of the works of art—among them Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” and Henri Matisse’s “The Window”—that define the DIA’s collection.
Selling off part of the DIA’s collection might help in the short term, but it definitely won’t help to solve Detroit’s more deeply rooted problems. In the long term, Detroit has to be a city where people actually want to live. Here are some things we know about Detroit:
- Around 40 percent of the city’s streetlights don’t work.
- Since 2008, more than half of Detroit’s parks have closed.
- There are more than 40,000 vacant houses in the city.
- The 2010 Census found that Detroit’s population fell by 25 percent in a decade. The city lost 237,500 residents—more than the 140,000 that New Orleans lost in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Does this sound like a place you want to move to? Detroit needs to be more creative in solving its problems—I’ll write more about that soon. But it’s clear that although selling off some of the DIA’s collection may give Detroit some short-term cash, it will not pull Detroit out of financial despair.