I've been meaning to mention this column from a couple of weeks ago raising the possibility of some art being sold to help stave off Detroit's bankruptcy (though it's quick to point out that "the city has no plans to sell art"). The interesting angle here is the city owns the works directly; they don't actually belong to the DIA.
That means two things. First, there's no issue of donor intent: "Many of the museum's greatest works were purchased directly by the city during the 1920s, when the city ran the museum as a department, paying staff salaries and budgeting for acquisitions. The city used its own dollars, not those of wealthy patrons who might have specified conditions for sale."
And second, the chief argument against selling in cases of this sort -- that the work is actually held "in trust" for the relevant public -- would seem to have little force here. As a local museum historian says, "it takes the whole notion of public trust and makes it complicated and interesting." In this case, the work seems not to be held "in trust" for the public; it's held by the public. If they -- the public -- decide to sell to avoid bankruptcy, what's the argument against it? "You, the public, cannot sell this work because it belongs to ... the public"?
Failing that, the Deaccession Police can always fall back on their favorite argument: If you sell, we will sanction you. Therefore, in order not to be sanctioned, you should not sell. Can't beat that logic.