Now that the City of Detroit has declared bankruptcy, one of the most critical questions will be what assets will be put on the table to pay creditors – and what assets, if any, will remain inalienable, that is, not capable of being sold. You see, there are moves afoot to sell off priceless paintings and artworks from the Detroit Institute of Arts to pay off the city’s debts. The stash of assets include works by Bruegel, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and van Gogh.
Normally the market value of large art collections is not calculated except as needed for blanket insurance policies. But now that a pack of hungry creditors wants to be made whole, many people are starting to look yearningly at the estimated $2 billion that could come from liquidating the museum’s collection, or substantial portions of it.
The whole scenario is of a piece with other enclosures driven by finance capitalism. The investor class has gone way beyond privatization; now it wants to use the debt crisis to gain outright ownership of public assets and start charging for the use of them. As economist Michael Hudson has put it, cities are selling sidewalks and citizens have to start paying to walk on them.
The fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection will say a great deal about how far we Americans are willing to go in monetizing our cultural heritage. Museums are supposed to act as permanent trustees of a community’s priceless heritage. Donors are willing to give works to museums only because they believe that the works will be there forever, and not sold off to satisfy some unrelated financial claim against the city. In other words, the artworks held in trust for the public by a museum are supposed to be treated as the priceless heritage of the citizenry, beyond any market valuation. That principle may be breached very soon.
For more to this topic, read the excellent 2001 book Playing Darts with Rembrandt: Public and Private Rights in Cultural Treasures, by Joseph Sax, the law scholar who famously revived interest in the public trust doctrine in the 1970s. The book raises the question of whether we have the right to throw darts at priceless works of cultural heritage even if we “own” them as private property.
Now we will have a test on whether the public’s rights in its cultural patrimony is something that the law and public officials will take seriously. Creditors are trying to cast the decision as one pitting measurable benefits like the city’s pensions against less tangible, concrete benefits like preserving cultural treasures. In this kind of tradeoff, the mighty dollar wins.
It seems very unlikely that the “intrinsic value” standard of artworks will carry the day. Bankruptcy courts are more accustomed to making grubby calculations about economic value. As the, the question facing a bankruptcy judge would be whether the sale of a city’s artworks would have long-term economic implications – depressing tourism, harming real-estate values and the value of other cultural institutions, for example – in a way that sets a city up for financial failure again down the road.” In other words, the secondary economic effects of a sell-off would trump the primary cultural effects.
A former director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Samuel Sachs II, noted, “If you could sell of Detroit’s hospitals and its universities, would you do that, too? If you do things like this, you’re basically spelling the end of the city as an ongoing entity.”
But we live in a market-obsessed America, in which market values routinely trump all other ecological, ethical and social values. In this time of market über alles, the idea of the public trust as a sacred obligation to posterity is seen as a quaint throwback. I for one am not so optimistic about the fate of those allegedly priceless treasures at the D.I.A. I think a price is about to be slapped on them.