Saturday, May 25, 2013


The other big news this week was that "Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr is considering whether the multibillion-dollar collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts should be considered city assets that potentially could be sold to cover about $15 billion in debt."

You can guess the reaction in the art world, I don't have to bother linking to anything.  But I was amused by this story in today's Times under the headline, "Collection of Detroit Institute of Arts Cannot Be Sold, Its Director Says."

Got that?  Cannot be sold.

Not shouldn't be sold.  Cannot be sold.

Why "can't" it be sold?  Because it's held in the "public trust," of course.  (Tell me again ....)

Now, in fairness to the museum's director, Graham Beal, the quotes attributed to him in the story don't support that headline.  He says:

"We believe that that kind of action — diminishing our collection, the cultural value — would not be in the long-term interest."

That sounds like a "shouldn't" statement, not a "can't" statement, and that's where the conversation has to take place.  If you think selling any of the art is a bad idea, given all of the relevant circumstances, then make the case.  But nobody gets to chant the magic words "public trust" and end the discussion.

The works absolutely can be sold; as we've seen repeatedly, museums sell work all the time (even some museums in Detroit).  The question is whether they should, and what happens -- to the public in whose trust they are held -- if they are not.

UPDATE:  Tell me again about the public trust.