The recent filing by the City of Detroit for bankruptcy—the largest such municipal filing in history—has brought with it an unexpected art law twist. Namely: to what extent can, or should the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts be used to satisfy the city’s creditors. As one might expect, the differences between what the city can do, what it should do, and what others can do to influence that decision have become hard to distinguish as the volume is raised. A review of some of the issues involved and the governing principles is in order. As rumors of the city’s bankruptcy circulated, speculation began about what would happen to the collection of DIA. And thus the dreaded “deaccession” debate began. This debate is essentially as follows: is art a fungible commodity that can and/or should be used in whatever way advances the mission of the institution (including selling it and using the proceeds to finance the museum’s operations), or do museums hold art in a public trust that must prioritize the collection and display of art? The latter view certainly holds sway among many in the museum community as an aspirational mattter, but its enforceability is often far less than they think.
Topics: National Academy Museum, Brandeis, Deaccession, American Alliance of Museums, Rose Art Museum, AAM, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Collections, Association of Art Museum Directors, Motor City, and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Cleveland Museum of Art, Detroit Bankruptcy, AAMD, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts