The Detroit Institute of Arts' multimillion-dollar collection is being reviewed by an emergency city manager seeking assets to sell to pay off municipal debt.  

One of the American cities hit hardest by the recession, Detroit has high levels of unemployment, dwindling house prices and about $17 billion US in debt. It could face bankruptcy.

But the news that the art institute's building and its collection — which includes works by Picasso, van Gogh and Bruegel — could be sold off to relieve debt has shocked both the local community and art lovers everywhere.

'We hold art in trust for public, Donors did not give us art to pay down city debts'—Annmarie Erickson, VP of Detroit Institute of Arts

Annmarie Erickson, executive vice president and chief operating offer of the 130-year-old museum, says the situation is "completely unprecedented."

"There’s never been a municipal bankruptcy or a manager appointed to oversee a city’s finances on this scale before in the U.S.," she told CBC’s Q cultural affairs show.

"And there’s never been an asset like the DIA collection involved in something like this. We really are in uncharted waters."

Emergency manager at city

Michigan governor Rick Snyder recently appointed emergency city manager Kevyn Orr to investigate the city’s crisis. Orr contacted the museum about two weeks ago, demanding that it play a role in solving the city’s debt problem.

Erickson says exactly what that role might be will be worked out over the next month. Though Detroit doesn’t contribute toward the operating costs of the museum, the art and the building are owned by the city.

In the meantime, the museum is pulling all the strings it can to preserve its collection, estimated to be worth $2.5 billion.

On Friday, Republican Senate majority leader Randy Richardville introduced a state bill to prevent the sale of the DIA's works in the event of municipal bankruptcy. But a state law might not trump federal bankruptcy law, which would kick into play if the city does declare bankruptcy.

Erickson said there is a matter of public trust involved.

"We hold art in trust for public. Donors did not give us art to pay down city debts," she said, adding that the idea of selling off a city’s art collection would lead to "donor chill."

She argues that the DIA is integral to the economic wellbeing of its midtown neighbourhood and "one of those institutions that make life better in this city and this state." Detroit residents are appalled at the suggestion DIA assets might be sold, she said.

Counties support museum operating cost

In 2012, the museum was successful in persuading the three counties surrounding Detroit to pass a tax levy to support its operating costs. That levy brings in $23 million annually and in return, the residents of those counties get free admission to the DIA. As a result, the museum has seen attendance soar.

The state governor has said he appointed the emergency city manager in Detroit to work through the financial crisis over the next 18 months to create a "stronger more healthy Detroit." 

"The idea of that is a Detroit that people would want to go to and we don’t believe that’s possible without a DIA," Erickson said.