The Detroit Institute of Arts avoided being forced to put a price tag on its world-renowned collection as a federal bankruptcy judge ruled Wednesday it was beyond the scope of his authority to allow the city’s creditors to establish an independent committee to assess the museum’s holdings.
Creditors had sought a fuller accounting — and likely a higher price tag — for the DIA’s assets after an earlier evaluation by the Christie’s auction house determined that the value of art purchased for the museum with city funds (only a small portion of the approximately 66,000 objects) was between $452 million and $866 million.
Judge Steven W. Rhodes also indicated that he took seriously Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s statement in June that the “art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts is held by the City of Detroit in charitable trust for the people of Michigan, and no piece in the collection may thus be sold, conveyed, or transferred to satisfy city debts or obligations.”
The judge said the fate of the DIA would be determined in the broad plan of adjustment that will ultimately be the city’s road map out of bankruptcy.
The decision gives the DIA maneuvering room at a critical moment in the debate about its future. This month, a coalition of foundations and nonprofit organizations pledged $330 million towards the city’s pension obligations in exchange for an arrangement that would transfer the entire DIA collection from the city to an independent, nonprofit museum entity. That would allow the city to meet some of its financial obligations to its most vulnerable creditors — former city employees — while foreclosing the possibility that the DIA’s art could be sold to meet city obligations.
Creditors aren’t likely to be happy with that plan, especially if they believe there are untapped funds, possibly billions, to be had from a sale of DIA art. Rhodes’s decision kept them from proceeding to the first step toward such a sale — a full-scale evaluation of the museum’s holdings, including art encumbered by the details of private gifts.
This also gives time for the state of Michigan to join the process. Shortly after Rhodes announced his decision, Gov. Rick Snyder announced $350 million in state funding, also to help meet the city’s obligations to its retirees, at a news conference in Lansing. That money, joined with the private funds offered by the foundations, could help shift the debate away from the possible sale of DIA assets and toward a broad agreement dedicated to meeting the city’s needs without disposing of its most critical cultural asset. But any money from the state would require legislative approval, and it isn’t clear how easy it will be to secure that.