The grim and venal push to put a pricetag on the art in the Detroit Institute of Arts continues with news Tuesday that an analysis of the collection’s value — important to creditors if they can force its sale as part of the larger Detroit bankruptcy crisis—has come in lower than expected.

People look at a mural by artist Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

The Detroit Free Press reported that “the 459 most valuable masterpieces at the Detroit Institute of Arts have a fair-market value of less than $2 billion,” according to an analysis by Christie’s, the art auction house. “That figure is significantly below most predictions for the value of the art, which many observers expected to reach at least several billion dollars — perhaps as much as $8 billion,” according to the Free Press story.

This may increase pressure on the DIA to figure out ways to “monetize” its art, either through sale or some other arrangement that brings in cash.

The real goal, though, in a larger perspective, is how to de-monetize art. It’s too late for Detroit to think about such things—any attempt to keep its art out of the market would be vigorously protested by the city’s creditors—but the Detroit crisis has people thinking about how to avert such things in the future. Detroit is in a special situation because much of its art is owned by the city. But other museums, especially smaller collections held by universities, corporations or non-profit entities that might not always consider art stewardship as an essential part of the services they offer, could find themselves in similar straits.

And there is a broad public good to be had from removing as much art as possible from the market, putting it beyond sale and exchange. It would move art from a commodity to a public commons, and greatly reduce the chance that important art works would be sold out of the country, or into private hands.

I was wondering last week if there might be something valuable in a national program similar to the Nature Conservancy’s conservation easements, in which landowners sell or give the right of land development to a third party which holds that right in perpetuity. That removes wilderness tracts from the danger of commercial or other development.

Would an art easement work, in which museums sold the right to sell their art, but held on to the art itself? Of course, a lot of museums receive art from private donors with exactly that sort of stipulation—that it can never be sold. But would an art easement program bring some larger coherence to what is now a patchwork system of individual gifts and ownership rules?

Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums (an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums) has been thinking along the same lines. She likes the idea of a “national public art movement” which would use easements to ensure the public’s access not only to art held in museums, but also art in private collections.

“Any object comes with a bundle of rights, the ownership of the copyright, the physical object itself…” she says, with the caveat that she isn’t speaking about the specific legal situation in Detroit. Private collectors could be encouraged to use the system, retaining physical ownership of the art in exchange for allowing the public access to it for some given period of time, and also logging or “chipping” the art in the public registry, which would help create a solid record of what art is out there, and where it is (a valuable resource as we’ve seen with efforts to determine the ownership of art that has been stolen, lost or looted).

Collectors might be given tax breaks for donating the right to sell their work, and museums and public institutions might be given outright cash to help their bottom lines.

One of the few silver linings in the ugly situation enveloping the DIA is that it coincides with two larger trends. First, there is traction being gained by voices such as that of Pope Francis, which are registering discontent with unregulated and exploitative economic markets. Second, there is widespread disgust with the smaller art market, with its volatility, irrationality the way in which it commodifies art and is exploited and manipulated by wealthy investors. So the DIA crisis could spur a larger conversation about how to rethink the relationship between art and capitalism. A national art easement program is one such possibility, a redefinition of art that removes it from the market altogether.

If the art held by the DIA were safely in such an easement program, then we could happily and accurately describe it with that sloppy adjective that is reflexively applied whenever we talk about art of this importance and beauty: That it is priceless.



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