Detroit is in appalling financial shape. The city hasn’t balanced its budget in years, has billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities, and is now governed by a state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr. An eventual bankruptcy filing remains a possibility.
But Mr. Orr was out of line when his office suggested last week that some or all of the treasures of the world-class Detroit Institute of Arts could be sold to help satisfy creditors. This week, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder compounded that mistake when he refused to rule out such a sale.
Even thinking about touching the DIA’s vast collections is wrong on too many levels to count. The city technically owns the museum and its art, but hasn’t contributed to its operating costs in years.
Instead, the museum is funded by a combination of private donations and, since last year, a 10-year metropolitan property tax enacted by area voters, only a small fraction of whom live in Detroit. Most of the DIA’s art was donated privately as well.
But the biggest reason the DIA should remain untouchable is that it is far more than a museum. It is the biggest jewel in the cultural life of Michigan — a place where major events from the annual “Fash Bash” to a hugely popular film series are staged each year.
Visitors regularly come from across the Midwest to see traveling art exhibits. The DIA is home to a stunning array of art from across the ages, including its signature Diego Rivera murals of life in industrial Detroit.
No one can calculate how much the art museum has added to the Detroit region, in money or quality of life. But it seems clear that if a single painting were to be sold off, nobody would ever donate to the DIA again.
A Detroit without culture would resemble a refugee camp more than a city, and it would forfeit any prospect of becoming great again. Any attempt to sell the DIA’s art would gain the city vast lawsuits and profit it little; the estimated $2.5 billion value of the museum’s artworks would scarcely wipe out the city’s $15 billion debt.
Detroit faces a short-term future of austerity and sacrifice. But wiping out the DIA would be equivalent to a penniless farmer eating his last laying hens.
The federal bankruptcy code says nothing about forcing a government entity to liquidate its cultural assets. Responsible city and state officials should take any question of touching the Detroit Institute of Arts off the table.