Detroit I: Deaccessioning DIA
September 4, 2013


I recently visited Detroit on a whirlwind trip.  As it was so jampacked, I hope to write about it in bits.

In preparation, I had been reading Jerry Herron’s elegiac homage to Detroit in I Remember Detroit (2004).  Herron describes Detroit’s varied history as being a reflection of America’s confrontation with, and answer to, itself.  For example, in the late 1920s, Detroit was touted as the “city of tomorrow”—at that time, Detroit was viewed as a place that reflected only the future, and neither the past nor the present.

Measuring “six times the land mass of Manhattan but is now home to only 700,000 people, down from 1.8 million”, should the Detroit of today be re-built?  And if so, in what way?  Now that Detroit is seeking bankruptcy protection, an interesting question that has arisen is whether the art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) should be deaccessioned to satisfy the city’s creditors.  At issue is whether the collection of a non-profit museum should be used as an asset class—similar to any other—or whether it should be treated differently.

I’d like to think that it’s possible to answer the above question in a way that allows DIA to uphold its charitable mission by holding its collection in the public trust.

According to Georgetown Law Professor Adam Levitin, bankruptcy law does not require the liquidation of cities.  In other words, "[c]reditors can no more force the liquidation of Detroit’s art collection than they can its playgrounds, fire stations or historic monuments.”  Therefore, while the DIA’s holdings of Picasso portraits could be sold off if Detroit's bankruptcy plan includes these paintings, they do not legally have to be.

Furthermore, from a best practice standpoint, if a museum is a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) or the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), it should consider guidelines put forth by these organizations when considering deaccessions.  For example, two fundamental deaccession principles set forth by AAMD are the improvement of the museum's collection and support of its mission, and that the proceeds from a deaccessioned work are used to acquire other works (and are not to be used for operating expenses).  (AAM's Code of Ethics can be found here.)

Perhaps most importantly, there may be even economic reasons to prioritize maintaining the DIA’s assets over the city's other assets.  If Detroit, true to its motto of Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus (“We hope for better things, it shall rise from the ashes”) rises again, maintaining a significant art collection (including Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry frescoes), may be important to ensure that tourists visit the city.