Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Day's DIA

Today's big Detroit news was that Christie's finished the appraisal that people have been waiting for.

Two points for now.

A lot of the press coverage is giving the impression that the entire collection was valued at under $1 billion.  This Washington Post article, for instance, under the headline "Detroit Institute of Arts works worth less than thought, surprising many," says:

"Some thought the Detroit Institute of Arts collection — which includes Van Gogh, Tintoretto and Rembrandt works, among others — could be worth upward of $8 billion, but city manager Kevyn Orr told the Free Press that Christie’s estimate for the works started below $1 billion."

Or here's CNNMoney.  The headline:  "Detroit's art worth $452 million to $866 million."  The lead:

"Detroit's city-owned art collection is worth between $452 million and $866 million, far less than most expected, according to a preliminary estimate by Christie's auction house."

But that's not true.  As Randy Kennedy's NYT story correctly points out, "Christie’s examination was limited to works that were bought entirely or in part with city funds .... So the appraisal covers only a small part of the collection in terms of numbers — less than 5 percent of the museum’s 66,000 works."  He adds that "art experts enlisted by The Detroit Free Press this year to conduct a quick, unofficial appraisal had said that 38 of the museum’s masterpieces alone would be worth at least $2.5 billion in the current art market."  (Mark Stryker notes that only 6 of those 38 were included in Christie's appraisal.)

So this appraisal doesn't tell us what the value of "the collection" is.

The second thing I wanted to mention is that the museum seems to have settled on its talking points.  From Kennedy's article:

"The museum’s director, Graham W. J. Beal, has said that any sale of art will most likely lead to the museum’s dissolution; donors would stop giving, and the museum will lose a crucial tax stream established last year by surrounding counties to provide the museum with badly needed operating revenue."

First there's the sky-is-falling business again.  The sale of any of the art will lead to the museum's dissolution.  Any of the art.  (Because, as we all know, museums never ever under any circumstances sell art.  Any of it.)  But why would it lead to dissolution?  Presumably for the two reasons that come after the semicolon:  (1) donors would stop giving and (2) the museum will lose the tax revenue from last year's millage.

Let's start with the second one.  As I've said before, they don't have to lose the millage.  If it happens, that would just be a punishment imposed by the surrounding counties.  (Also known as Kicking Someone When They're Down.)  More importantly, the millage is supposed to bring in $23 million a year for 10 years.  The city could in theory decide to sell $460 million worth of art (settle down, not advocating it, just making a point) and "replace" the $230 million in millage moneys and still have another $230 million left over.  There would be no "dissolution" of the museum.  So: stop.

On the other point, I know I'm missing the deaccession outrage gene, but it just completely escapes me.  If the city comes through this desperate, horrific process and, at the end of the day, the museum remains standing but in a somewhat diminished capacity -- say it's 90 or 95% of what it was pre-bankruptcy -- are we supposed to think that the response of potential donors is going to be hell no, I'm not donating anything to that museum.  If the city goes through a Chapter 9 bankruptcy again, they may sell the work I donated!  In what world does that make any sense?  Particularly since, even in the midst of this desperate, horrific, unprecedented process, the city has bent over backwards (to this point anyway) to look only at works that were not donated.  (Again, "Christie’s examination was limited to works that were bought entirely or in part with city funds.")  If the city survives this and comes back to life, wouldn't donors be flocking to help the museum?  I find the whole thing just baffling.

As I've said before, send better talking points.