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.