Sell Detroit's Art, Save Detroit's People

A new appraisal of the Detroit Institute of Art's collection values the works at up to $4.6 billion (though an actual sale would probably bring in slightly less than $1 billion). Would selling some of these works mean rejecting art? Not at all. It would mean embracing humanity.

As always, the reality of this situation is more complicated than any little theoretical formulations—for example, hundreds of millions of dollars pledged to help the city's pension funds are contingent on leaving the art in the museum. But let's take a step back and look again at the larger issues here, because there is, at the base of all this, an ethical argument that can be applied to all of the bankrupt cities of the future, and to poor cities everywhere.

So: Detroit is bankrupt. City services have been slashed to the bone. Thousands of Detroit city employees and retirees are about to vote on a plan that will drastically cut their pensions—and if they vote "No," rejecting the carefully negotiated settlement, their pensions will likely end up being slashed even more. These are hardworking people who were promised a certain income for their retirement. Now, those promises are being broken. Thousands and thousands of families will suffer because of this city's decades of financial mismanagement.

Detroit is shutting off water to its own citizens. The city has hiked water prices, because it is poor. Many citizens cannot pay their water bills, because they are poor. Nearly 15,000 people had their water shut off in the past three months. The city says: we're broke, we need you to pay your bills. The people say: we're broke, we can't pay the bills, but we still need water. It is an impasse. Dismantling your own city for scrap metal will only pay the bills for so long. It is not a sustainable situation.

As all of this is happening, the Detroit Institute of Art is sitting on works of art valued at several billion dollars. A study last year that considered only the works that the museum might be able to sell without lawsuits, because they were purchased with city funds, found that such a sale could bring in "$454 million to $867 million."

Here are some of the artists whose works the museum could sell for the most money: Matisse, Monet, Van Gogh, Giovanni Bellini, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The sale of five individual works by those five men would bring an estimated $236 million to $460 million.

The total amount of unpaid water bills in Detroit is $90 million.

None of the five aforementioned artists is from Detroit.

The Detroit Institute of Art has 66,000 works of art.

A good deal of the outrage directed at the idea of selling off art from Detroit's museum is a backlash against the vague idea that doing so would mean rejecting art as a whole, or would amount to a declaration that the residents of Detroit do not deserve to enjoy art. On the contrary. I can think of no higher expression of Van Gogh's artistic worth than the fact that Detroit could—with the sale of a single one of his paintings—provide water to all of its citizens. I would wager that the poverty-stricken Detroit residents who have no water in their homes would consider this a fair trade. We would never approve of a city deciding to spend $100 million on one painting when it could not afford to provide water to its citizens; it is equally wrong to approve of a city refusing to sell a painting for $100 million when the money could be used for such a pressing purpose.

The comfortable people who object so strenuously to the sale of a few works of art are not brave defenders of artistic values. They are defenders of elitism. This is not about "liking art." If the Detroit Institute of Art sells five works of art, it will still have 65,595 works of art. And it will reside in a city newly able to provide water to its citizens. "Art" does not mean "a handful of obscenely expensive works by long-dead famous men." It means human expression. The city of Detroit is absolutely swarming, today, with artists, many of whom I'm sure would be happy to create works of art to display in their city's museum, at a very low price. That would be a far more powerful statement of civic pride than hoarding valuable assets as your neighbors sweat in the summer heat with no water.

Art is everywhere. Art is free. Human suffering, on the other hand, is incalculably expensive. Sell some art. Save some people.

[Photo: AP]