Will Detroit have to sell its art to pay its bills?

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"NOTHING STOPS DETROIT" reads the red neon sign in the window of the Detroit Shoppe, a temporary souvenir/local goods store downtown. One downtown high-rise wall boasts the several-stories-tall slogan "Outsource to Detroit," referring to businesses taking advantage of the city's relatively low overhead.

Dan Gilbert, the Detroit-based owner of Quicken Loans as well as the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, has been spurring much of the frenetic development that has been transforming Downtown. He has been buying skyscrapers at bargain prices, refurbishing them in often-creative ways (one new office space has been crafted out of an old basement bank vault, with skylights installed in the sidewalks above) and moving in an ever-increasing number of employees from his own companies and others, such as Chrysler.

Gilbert says before this effort began in August 2010, he had 3,600 workers scattered in various suburban offices. Now he reports having about 10,000 employees working Downtown, many in a cluster of high rises in the Campus Martius district, with a park at its center that Gilbert and other private donors have "activated" by creating outdoor café seating, an entertainment stage and little green food huts representing popular local restaurants.

Gilbert says he is now working to draw more restaurants and cultural attractions to the area. "Every successful urban core, it's live, work and play," says Gilbert, who also took ownership of Downtown's Greektown Casino in April. "I don't think there's a successful urban core anywhere in the world without restaurants and probably art."

Meanwhile, a light rail system is in the works to run about three-and-a-half miles up and down Woodward, thus connecting Downtown to the DIA and other Midtown attractions.

To Matt Clayson, director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, the DIA is central to the creative work energizing the city. "The DIA is fundamental to all of this," he says. "It's our cultural conscience."

Gilbert doesn't envision all of these efforts ending if the DIA is forced to sell art and possibly to close, but he also could see such a move having a troublesome impact. "I think that would be psychologically (damaging) not only to the city but to the region," he says. "The whole purpose of bankruptcy really is a fresh start. So you don't want to throw out the baby and the bathwater and have nothing to build on."

As Beal stands in the DIA courtyard surrounded by Diego Rivera's celebrated "Detroit Industry" murals, an older woman in a motorized chair calls to him: "Don't let them sell any of your artwork!"

The British-born Beal, who arrived at the DIA in 1999 after directing the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, can envision a domino effect that would begin with the DIA being forced to sell one piece of art and end with it shutting its doors. Oakland Country officials have said they would withhold its $10 million annual contribution to the tri-county $23 million millage if the museum sold art, because they hadn't planned for that money to go toward Detroit's debts. Officials from Macomb Country (contributing $5 million) have echoed that sentiment while Wayne County ($10 million) officials have said they also might reconsider.

The yanking of that money, Beal says, shutters the museum.

The millage had been Beal's Hail Mary pass in the first place as he says he'd already taken the DIA's annual budget from $34 million to $25 million and laid off 25 percent of its staff. A strategic planning analysis from 2007 showed that the prospect of trimming another $5 million from the budget "effectively closed us," Beal says, so instead he set out to convince the Metropolitan Detroit area — which, given the city's lack of tourism, supplies the bulk of the museum's audience — of the DIA's worth. He toured replicas of various masterworks around far-flung communities and made the case to residents that the DIA "belonged to them, literally."

The communities responded by funding the museum.

"That shows that art and culture and the DIA are valued in the community," Borowy-Reeder says. "It's a big stamp of validation. And then for (selling art) to be put forward as an appropriate measure to get out of bankruptcy or to help solve some of the bankruptcy problems is really troubling."

Another complication is that the Association of Art Museum Directors, which accredits the DIA and other North American art institutions, offers two "fundamental principles" regarding the deaccesioning of art:

• "The decision to deaccession is made solely to improve the quality, scope, and appropriateness of the collection, and to support the mission and long-term goals of the museum."

• "Proceeds from a deaccessioned work are used only to acquire other works of art — the proceeds are never used as operating funds, to build a general endowment, or for any other expenses."

When the National Academy in Manhattan sold two paintings for financial reasons in 2008, the AAMD asked its members not to lend artworks to the academy or to collaborate with it on exhibitions. In May the AAMD released a statement condemning a possible DIA art sale: "Art collections are vitally important cultural and educational resources that should never be treated as disposable assets to be liquidated, even in times of economic distress."

Ford Bell, the Washington, D.C.-based president of the American Alliance of Museums, says the museum field has worked hard to convince the Financial Accounting Standards Board that collections not be included as assets on financial statements. "If a big museum were to sell (art), it could begin to change," he warns.

Beal notes that the DIA never considered selling artwork during previous financial crises — such as during the Great Depression or in 1975 when the museum had to close for a month — so he doesn't see why the museum now should have to pay for problems created elsewhere. Orr has criticized many aspects of the city's financial management, including nearly $1 billion in bonuses paid from Detroit's pension fund.

Beal notes that the DIA has been managing and funding its own employees' pensions since 1997, when the DIA ceased being a city department.

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