A artist group’s sign made of fire reads “#Save the Art” on the north lawn of the Detroit Institute of Arts. (Donna Terek/AP)

Recent events in Detroit have made Graham W.J. Beal keenly aware of history. Beal is the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is now caught up in the messy Detroit bankruptcy debacle. Because the museum is owned by the city — a relatively rare but not unprecedented governance structure — the city’s world-class art museum is threatened with the possible sale of major pieces from its collection.

That would be unprecedented in the more than 125-year history of the DIA, and would breach one of the culture world’s most sacred red lines.

“In the 1970s and the 1930s, when the DIA either shut down or nearly shut down, there is no whiff of anybody suggesting in any committee or board meeting that art should be sold,” says Beal, referring to two previous periods of crisis for the museum. “It just doesn’t come up.”

But now it’s being seriously considered, and as with so many taboos, mere discussion of it makes the unthinkable seem possible. Although a spokeswoman for the DIA says she can’t give any specifics, she acknowledged that representatives of the art auction house Christie’s are now surveying parts of the collection in an effort to determine their value. Christie’s was hired by Kevyn Orr, who was appointed emergency manager of the financially distressed city by the governor of Michigan in March.

Orr, who is now overseeing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, insists that there is no need to worry about the DIA’s collection: “There has never been, nor is there now, any plan to sell art,” he has said in a statement. But DIA officials, and the museum world at large, are not comforted by that reassurance. Why, if there’s no plan to sell the art, is it being appraised? Putting a monetary value on the collection, which could easily be in the billions of dollars, will only make it all that more attractive to the city’s creditors, which include municipal pension funds.

In this Sept. 12, 2013, photo, a fire-breathing dragon sculpture made of found objects makes its way down Milwaukee Street towards the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit. (Donna Terek/AP)

“If I were in England, I’d blame Margaret Thatcher,” says Beal, who was born in Stratford-on-Avonin Britain. “It is knowing the worth of everything and the value of nothing.”

What’s really at stake

Much of what is happening in Detroit is peculiar to Detroit. But Beal is right to see a larger cultural and political dimension to the possible sale of art from the collection. This is about dismantling the public commons: There are things we hold in trust for the common good, places and institutions such as libraries, museums and public parks that are meant to be held, enjoyed and passed on to future generations without regard to their monetary value, immediate cost or other inconveniences presented by their maintenance.

It is about the fraying and ultimate destruction of a social contract built on the robber-baron philanthropy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the progressive movements that championed education and political reform in the last century and the ideals of equal access that emerged in the civil rights struggles since the 1950s. If you believe there is nothing more to the social contract than the inalienable right of all men to thrive or perish in the market, then museums are an obnoxious example of irrational collectivist thinking.

The threat to sell the DIA’s art has shocked the museum world, where strong ethical guidelines promulgated by the Association of Art Museum Directors declare that art may only be sold to buy more art and never to support operational costs or other basic needs. Museums that violate that rule can be sanctioned and are generally ostracized, which means, among other things, that they might lose the ability to borrow from other museums and host traveling exhibitions.

The rule has taboo status because the temptation to sell art is so strong. The art market, an ugly jungle of speculators, has driven up prices to such a degree that museums have become house rich, but cash poor: They hold art that is enormously valuable, but they find it difficult to compete with private collectors, especially foreign buyers who are floating in oil wealth or enjoying the fruits of systematic national corruption. Which is to say, America’s museums can’t compete with moguls from Russia, China and the Middle East, which is where the DIA’s art will go if it is sold.

At this point, only art bought with city funds — a practice that ended in the 1950s — will be appraised. Art donated to the museum by private individuals isn’t under consideration for the auction block . . . yet. The thinking, apparently, is this distinction will insulate the city against lawsuits from the families of prominent private donors.

Advocates for selling art from the DIA point to a number of things: That some of the most valuable pieces were bought directly with city funds; that some of the creditors are city employees who are dependent on city pensions for their retirement; and that the sale of a few prized pieces from the museum wouldn’t substantially diminish the DIA’s stature or its ability to serve visitors.

To the extent that these arguments are honestly advanced in the interests of working-class pensioners, they deserve answers. And advocates of the DIA have made a compelling case: That the city’s ability to recover is dependent on healthy, thriving cultural institutions; and that the sale of any art would only precipitate the sale of more, set an intolerable precedent for both the DIA and the larger American museum world, and wouldn’t generate assets remotely robust enough to meet the city’s financial obligations.

All of those arguments make sense within a debate about the ownership and utilitarian value of the art held by the DIA. Many of those opposed to selling the art have advanced the idea that the DIA belongs not to the city but to the people of Detroit. Others extend this, calling it a national treasure and thus collectively owned by the people of the United States. But this is ultimately the wrong paradigm for considering the issue. This isn’t about ownership, it’s about something more profound, and more socially valuable than property. It’s about stewardship, which transcends the market. To the extent that one can speak of “owning” an art collection that has been gathered and maintained as a public trust, the “owners” aren’t even born yet. This the fundamental to stewardship: That the art is held for future generations as much as it is maintained for the enjoyment of visitors today.

Stewardship is a fraught idea, these days. We hold on to cultural traditions and pass them on to future generations even if we can’t quite see their utility, because we recognize (in a conservative sense) the need to be humble about casually discarding what has been bequeathed us. We sacrifice some of our immediate financial benefit to pass on to future generations a clean environment, and we pay into things such as Social Security that benefit our elders because (in a liberal way of thinking) we recognize a connection and responsibility that transcends our immediate self-interest. Indeed, the very idea of a city pension is fundamentally grounded in a deeper belief in cultural stewardship.

The power to unite

The saddest thing about this current moment is that the DIA stands as a beacon of what stewardship across the lines of political ideology might mean. In August 2012, three counties in the Detroit metropolitan area passed a small increase to their property taxes to help support the DIA and preserve it from serious budget cuts. The annual levy, expected to raise some $23 million, passed despite long-standing political rifts between Detroit and its suburban neighbors, and huge financial disparities and racial and demographic divides that separate the wealthy suburban counties from the city center.

That referendum, which allowed the museum to do away with admission charges, was a shocker to anyone familiar with the cultural and economic politics of Detroit. Regional cooperation in the Detroit metropolitan area has often been almost nonexistent, and the city has suffered enormously as people and wealth fled to surrounding areas, reducing tax revenue and hollowing out the city’s ability to maintain its infrastructure and schools.

That the leaders of the DIA succeeded in persuading suburban voters to pass the tax hike proves how successful they have been making a larger case for the value and importance of the institution. It’s also a sign — perhaps — that people far from the center of Detroit recognize the importance of cultural stewardship that transcends the usual political dynamics, and the debilitating history of arbitrary political boundaries.

Which is why it seems surreal and ghoulish that Christie’s is now rifling through the collection and putting price tags on works by Bruegel and van Gogh. If anyone has the best interests of Detroit at heart, they need to study the DIA very closely. It isn’t a perfect institution, and like many museums in this country, it was once a monument to wealth, and noblesse oblige, largely built with riches harvested from the labor of others.

But it has evolved into something very different, a museum that defines its mission broadly, that has experimented with the innovative display of art and educational programs, built an audience across political and ideological divides, and preserved an invaluable archive of human creativity. Of course, it must court donors, play politics and watch its bottom line, but like the best American museums, it is an oasis: From the banality of markets and price tags and the idea that there is nothing in life that can’t be quantified, commodified and sold to the highest bidder.