D.I.A. May Be A-OK: Ford, Kresge, and Knight to the Rescue

Detroiters, museum professionals, and art lovers everywhere, rejoice! A group of national and local foundations — including the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — have pooled funds and pledged $330 million to prevent the city of Detroit from selling off part of the Detroit Institute of Art's collection in bankruptcy proceedings. All three foundations have a long history of supporting the arts in Detroit. Henry Ford's son, Edsel Ford, was a key figure in the D.I.A.'s early years, helping design the historic main building and commissioning one of the museum's most recognizable pieces, a massive fresco mural by Diego Rivera.

When Detroit entered into bankruptcy in July, many Detroit residents and museum experts assumed the D.I.A's collection would be off limits. But creditors argued the collection is not an essential municipal asset, and since the museum is wholly owned by the city, art should be evaluated and auctioned off to help pay down the city's debt. The city's emergency financial manager, Kevyn Orr, and his team of lawyers agreed. Christie's auction house was hired this December to price some of the museum's most valuable pieces. Selling a group of the museum's most prized works would generate between $454 million and $867 million, Christie's concluded. 

Simply evaluating the museum's collection for auction worried many museum professionals, who feared Detroit could set a dangerous precedent for other cities to consider looting their museums when times were tough. Many residents felt outraged the city would dismantle one of its main cultural attractions and saw the move as a shortsighted solution that would hurt the city's economy in the long term. 

Thanks to this generous pledge, it may all be avoided. The $330 million would go toward Detroit's pension obligations, and may also put the museum under state control. The plan is still being negotiated, and it's not a done deal yet. But if the deal goes forward, the museum's collection might just remain in one piece.