Detroit Should Sell Art Because Why Shouldn't It, Coastal Writer SaysS

One recurring thing of Detroit's trip through bankruptcy court has been the local eye-rolls over coastal writers diagnosing the city's decline — the Detroit Free Press offers an occasional feature called "The truth about Detroit," battles have raged over Anthony Bourdain's portrayal in his CNN show, and even we've grown tired of it.

But, man, did Nick Gillespie of The Daily Beast outdo himself yesterday on the topic of fixing Detroit.

It's time, Gillespie glibly mopes, to sell the goddamn art, Detroit. It has debt, he says.

If you really want to make jaws drop in polite conversation ... suggest that the city unload its little-seen yet high-valued art collection hiding in plain sight at The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).

Yes, the museum that caused an international stir about what the impact of a sale of a single work could mean for the city, that one — hiding in plain sight.

Next, Gillespie argues that because the city has an estimated $18 billion in long-term debt, the estimated $500 million Detroit-owned works could fetch should absolutely be up for sale. Even the bankruptcy judge presiding over Detroit's Chapter 9 case said a quick cash infusion would do nothing to solve the city's long-term outlook. Fuck that, Gillespie says.

Let's get real: What sort of message would it send to current and future residents—not to mention current and future bondholders—if Detroit refuses to put everything on the table? You can't eat the DIA's "Still Life With Fruit, Vegatables, and Dead Game," no matter how well-rendered, and for most of the past 80 years, the city has been subsidizing not just the day-to-day running of the museum but also its acquisitions.

Correct, you can't eat art. One of the only sound assertions Gillespie makes here. Of course, to make his case, he points out the city has subsidized day-to-day operations well before mentioning last year's successful ballot proposal that raised property taxes across three counties, and, in doing so, funds nearly 75 percent of the DIA's operations.

Then, as someone shrewdly proving they have no perspective on the matter, he cites Virginia Postrel's piece from this summer, in which she (basically) argued Detroit just isn't a place that should have any art. The same Postrel who has never been to the DIA, and seemed to lack the understand that selling the collection would impact the museum's standing and likely scare off future donors. And I mean, come on, it's Detroit. More from Gillespie:

The numbers were up in fiscal 2013, which ended in June, partly because the DIA no longer charges an admission fee to residents of the surrounding area. (That's because they are paying higher property taxes to fund the museum.)

Sacre bleu! Higher property taxes.

Selling off Detroit's enviable art collection thus represents a truly rare win-win on public policy: The city will get much-needed cash that might help it reboot itself, and museums in places that are thriving will be able to add to their offerings.

A win-win. One where the the city gets some cash to clear the books, without having to do any real restructuring, and, in doing so, dismantles one of Detroit's most venerable cultural institutions.

The problem with Gillespie's argument — forget for a minute that on the same day he posted this, the museum signed onto a plan being orchestrated to raise $500 million from non-profits, donors and more for the city's restructuring plans, shielding any art from a potential sale — is it fails to consider any sort of context.

Sure, you save some time and close the debt-gap by slinging some art, but $500 million is a drop in the $18 billion bucket. With the DIA in the picture, as Jeff Wattrick of Deadline Detroit noted in our short discussion Tuesday, the city got the attention of every rich donor in the region who — likely — aren't interested in Detroit's failing infrastructure and services. Sell the art, though, and the museum breaks its trust and — likely — begins its descent into irrelevancy. And, more so, you slow down the bankruptcy case, which the judge has seemed entirely against doing from the onset.

Find a way to preserve the museum's collection and, hopefully, keep a pensioners $19,000 a year income intact — the two biggest assets garnering attention throughout this process — why wouldn't you choose that option? What honestly do you get out of suggesting Sell The Art Already? Do you truly believe that dismantling arguably the city's most well-known culture institution, one that draws people into Detroit from across the region, would not have an adverse effect on the city post-bankruptcy?

It's not a simple equation, and it's bullshit to imply otherwise, as Gillespie suggested yesterday. Even then, say the city does sell the entire 2,800 pieces it had appraised, what about post-bankruptcy? Pissing away the DIA doesn't answer any question about how Detroit can generate new dedicated revenue streams.

Why not let this mediation process play out and see if people are really interested in floating funds to preserve the museum, and, in turn, likely keep pensions from being slashed as drastic as they would be otherwise? How about it? Unless you start to seriously consider the question, as Time put it this summer, Is Your City Next?, and what, say, Chicago, would have to consider in the event of a Chapter 9 filing, maybe it's best the national thinkpieces on How To Solve Detroit keep gathering dust on the shelf. At least, for now. Our eyes hurt.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)