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Opinion

Detroit bankruptcy and the art of the inanimate

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Photo - The Detroit Industry Murals by the Diego Rivera are seen in Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts in December. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
The Detroit Industry Murals by the Diego Rivera are seen in Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts in December. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Opinion,Op-Eds,Art,Detroit,Detroit Bankruptcy

Shame. Remorse. Regret. They weren’t always in such short supply.

A public official would cause mass suffering — say, crater one of America’s great cities right into the Third World, chase away businesses and more than a million taxpaying residents, wrack up $18.5 billion in debt, and abandon to the mercy of the courts tens of thousands of current and retired city employees, and also a legion of pensioners whose hard-earned investments were used to power the lights and keep the sewage flowing outbound.

If the art belongs to Detroit, then why shouldn't it belong to those to whom Detroit has so colossally failed?

And then he would acknowledge his mistakes. He would apologize. And he would work his tail off to make amends.

Not in Detroit, where that bankrupt city's future might depend upon a treasure trove of city-owned art -- nearly 70,000 pieces that reside at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Detroit's art collection is a legal and undisputed city asset -- loaded with masterpieces from the likes of Giovanni Bellini, Henry Fuseli, Diego Rivera, and Claude Monet -- worth a staggering sum.

Detroit’s art collection could absolve the city’s outstanding debts entirely on its own, or, simply augment the existing asset pool sufficient to do so. Either option undermines a federal judge’s recent determination that Detroit is, in fact, “insolvent.”

Detroit’s art collection should be universal cause for celebration, akin to the last-second discovery of long-forgotten, wall-stashed gold by the nearly evicted man; it should render all of Detroit’s creditors whole.

Estimates of its monetary value have consistently vacillated between $10 to $20 billion.*

The dreaded “I-word” is not just a term you don’t want to hear from your personal accountant. Insolvency is a precise legal milestone — signifying that one’s debts far exceed one’s assets — that must be achieved before bankruptcy proceedings may continue.

Ever since Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager and forced the city into bankruptcy — deftly skirting his gubernatorial responsibilities, unpleasant economic consequences and the personal political contusions resulting from a state bailout — all have been waiting to see if “insolvency” will be officially certified.

It has been. And yet, Detroit’s vast and valuable art collection belies that claim, a fact not even disputed by the many nearly hysterical “art experts,” “art critics,” and curators featured in numerous high-pitched pieces over recent weeks from the New York Times to PBS decrying the potential sale of this asset, or parts of it.

One declared it a “no-win situation.” Another, “just horrid.” A third professed outrage and disdain that art could be “monetized in this way,” asserting indelible “damage.” To the museum. To the city. And to the art itself.

One wonders if he’s aware — expert that he is — that an entire market exists to capitalize on exactly this sort of “monetization” of art.

I admire art, but I’ve never heard of art depreciating simply because it changed owners; I’m pretty certain it’s this exact migration that fuels the art market.

More importantly, if it belongs to Detroit, then why shouldn’t it belong to those to whom Detroit has so colossally failed?

And why do these self-righteous defenders of the “arts & humanities” so often fail to defend that latter part of the equation, the one represented by beating hearts, bellies to feed, and bills to pay?

If someone has apologized for destroying Detroit, I’ve missed it. Excuses have been offered and fingers have been pointed, often in the wrong direction.

Mostly, though, there has been silence, and, a kind of helpless apathy, as though the decades-in-the-making mess just sort of … happened. Organically.

Of course, there has been an equally passive regard for the fate of those who have been victimized by this financial collapse: the current city employees to whom paychecks will be due; the retired city employees -- policemen, firemen, and teachers among them -- whose pensions and health benefits face the sharp knife; and the many investors -- large and small -- who kept the city afloat for years, and who are being promised pennies on the dollar.

All deserve to have their hard work, their contracts, and their investments honored.

Aside from a few peripheral court cases and a mayoral jail term, the career politicians and bureaucratic administrators who long spun the web of corrupt and profligate incompetence that strangled Detroit have been allowed to disappear into blameless anonymity.

Their victims remain, and they are real.

Someone should ask Snyder: “If you declared bankruptcy, would you have the freedom to determine which of your assets are disposable? Or, which of your creditors were most deserving? Most importantly, would you have the indecency to try?"

*Christie’s auction house recently assessed just 5 percent of the collection, asserting a potential value for just those pieces between $452 million and $866 million.

Buckley Carlson is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.
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