DETROIT — The Christie's appraisers enter on Mondays, when the museum is closed, and either inspect what's on the walls or ask to see some of the thousands of works not on display, sometimes sending Detroit Institute of Arts technicians on half-day missions to find them in deep storage and prepare them for examination.
People on the city's cultural scene tend to think it won't happen, that the City of Detroit ultimately won't sell off some or all of this world-class art museum's collection to help cover the more than $18 billion in debt obligations cited in Detroit's recent bankruptcy filing. Selling a Van Gogh, a Rembrandt, a Matisse —unthinkable, no? They wouldn't irreparably tarnish what may be Detroit's prime cultural gem just as the city is positioning itself to bounce back like its previously bankrupt car companies have done, would they?
"That's ludicrous. That's crazy," Antonio Agee, a graffiti artist who works under the name Shades, says while mingling with fellow artists and designers at the Detroit Design Festival opening night party in the former General Motors Research Laboratory, one of the city's many repurposed historic buildings. "The DIA is the best thing we've got. We can bounce back without selling art. People who say they're going to sell art don't believe in the city. I believe in the city."
Yet starting in mid-September there they were, those visitors from Christie's, paid for with $200,000 of the broke city's money after Kevyn Orr, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder as the city's emergency manager in March, prompted Detroit's bankruptcy filing in July and announced in early August that he had hired the New York-based auction house to appraise the DIA's collection. Such a sell-off would be unprecedented in the U.S. museum world, which operates under a code of ethics that allows the selling of artworks only for the purpose of buying more art. But then again much of what's going on in U.S. history's largest municipal bankruptcy is unprecedented.
"There's really nothing to guide us," DIA director Graham Beal says as he sits in the recently renovated Kresge Court, a former cafeteria and party room transformed into a lounge resembling a Tuscan courtyard. "This is all untested."
The DIA — unlike other major art museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art — is city owned. Detroit has given it little or no money in recent years, but no matter: The museum belongs to the city.
Many Detroiters would agree with that statement, that the museum belongs to the city, to them. The inscription above the DIA's grand entrance reads: "Dedicated by the People of Detroit To the Knowledge and Enjoyment of Art."
Many residents of the surrounding suburban counties would contend that the DIA belongs to them as well. In August 2012 voters in Wayne (which includes Detroit), Oakland and Macomb Counties approved a new property tax to fund the DIA for 10 years — this at a time when the general population has not proven particularly keen on voluntary tax increases. The millage is supplying $23 million of what Beal says is the museum's $30 million annual budget, while residents of those counties get free admission.
So the suggestion of selling artistic masterworks to pay off city debts is opening many cans of worms in Detroit and beyond. Even setting aside the will-they-or-won't-they proposition, some see danger in where this conversation is leading, with art being pitted against city services and retirees' pensions, if not also the interests of municipal bondholders who made investments that went south.
Can art's value be measured in terms of what it would fetch at auction, or does it provide something far greater if less measurable to a community, particularly one desperately seeking a rebound? Is it appropriate to discuss art as a balance-sheet asset, or is this controversy yet another sign of a money-obsessed culture? Or in times like these, when a city can't afford to respond promptly to 911 calls or to keep more than 60 percent of its streetlights working at any one time, should everything be put on the table?
"The city must know the current value of all its assets, including the city-owned collection at the DIA," Orr said in a statement upon announcing the DIA appraisals. "There has never been, nor is there now, any plan to sell art. This valuation, as well as the valuation of other city assets, is an integral part of the restructuring process."
"Kevyn Orr has said he doesn't want to sell the art," Beal says, "which is not the same as saying, 'I'm not going to.'"
True enough. On Oct. 3 Orr told the Detroit Economic Club that the DIA had to figure out a way to leverage money out of its collection. "I'm deferring to them to save themselves," the Detroit Free Press quoted Orr as saying, "but if they don't, I'll take them up."
With its dramatic staircase, fountain and Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker" statue fronting the Woodward Avenue thoroughfare, the white-marble DIA anchors Detroit's resurgent Midtown neighborhood, standing among the sprawling Wayne State University campus, the College for Creative Studies, blocks upon blocks of medical facilities, and new businesses, galleries and restaurants that have been popping up in recent months and years.
The story outside Detroit is that in declaring bankruptcy, the city has hit a new low. The story inside Detroit is that the bottoming-out actually happened years ago and that an influx of artists, designers, entrepreneurs and developers are infusing new energy into Downtown, Midtown and maybe even some of those horribly depleted neighborhoods.
Drive north from Downtown through the area historically known as the Cass Corridor, and you see some abandoned, boarded-up, graffiti-laden buildings but also freshly minted Midtown storefronts sporting an art gallery, a soon-to-open tapas place and the boutique for Shinola's high-end watches and bicycles manufactured nearby.
"It's a crazy, vibrant art scene, and it's such a difficult message to communicate: The city is bankrupt, the DIA may have to sell off art works, yet artists are moving here in droves," says Elysia Borowy-Reeder, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), which opened in 2006 a few blocks south of the DIA in a high-ceilinged former auto showroom.
Amid the bustle of the Design Festival kickoff, designer/artist Bethany Shorb says she moved to Detroit from Boston for graduate school 14 years ago and chose to stay. When she tells people in other cities that she lives in Detroit, "people say, 'I'm sorry.' I'm not," she says. "It's my chosen, adopted home."
Essayist Marsha Music, whose artist/husband David Philpot moved to Detroit from Chicago a year ago, says the city's decline of industry has had a positive effect on its artistry. "In a way the art in Detroit has been untethered from commercial and industrial fetters of past decades," she says."
Many Detroiters have grown weary of "ruin porn": photos shot among Detroit's estimated 78,000 abandoned buildings thought to be beyond salvage. The city's preferred theme is its inevitable rebound.