Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What do Detroiters & Michiganders think should happen with the DIA's collection?

Dear Reader: My good friend and soon-to-be art lawyer, Dani Johnson, has generously agreed to share her thoughts and research concerning the city of Detroit, its pending bankruptcy, and the possible deaccessioning of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection. Dani's first blog entry was published Monday, the second yesterday, and the last one today.


Most pieces I’ve read in the press either adamantly oppose selling any art or strongly advocate for doing whatever is necessary to help the City financially, including selling some of the DIA’s art. After talking with family, friends, and friends of friends who live and/or work in the Detroit area about what they think should happen, the answers I’ve gotten can best be summed up as: it’s complicated.

Obviously no one wants to break up the DIA’s outstanding collection: in addition to the DIA’s importance as a cultural institute in the city, Detroiters are proud people, and the DIA is one of the last things they have to hang on to from the glory days of Detroit’s earlier years. On the other hand, obviously every one wants Detroit police officers and firefighters to get the pensions they’ve earned and for some of the other glaring financial problems of Detroit to be addressed.

What nobody knows is whether one will lead to the other. Even if the City is able to sell off some of the collection, will that money go to municipal workers’ pensions? Or will it go straight to the pockets of creditors? My understanding is that bankruptcy judges in similar circumstances do their best to keep assets like this in the charitable/public sector while fulfilling creditors from other assets, but the whole problem here is that Detroit is almost flush out of other assets. In either case, will selling the art provide a long-term solution? Many are concerned that it will provide only a temporary patch and then leave Detroit with nothing to make it a city worth living in. This is only an issue if you’re of the opinion that Detroit is capable of being revived and rebuilt—but certainly every Detroiter I’ve talked to is of that opinion. And with the recent influx of private investment into the City (namely Dan Gilbert buying up a good portion of the City), I have to say I’m hopeful that it’s possible, too.

Dani Johnson is a recent graduate of Indiana University Maurer School of Law. During law school, Dani studied intellectual property law and founded the Society for Law and the Arts, a student organization that raises awareness for art law issues and career paths. Dani served as a Summer Associate at Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in New York in 2012 and as the Trademark Office Assistant at Indiana University’s Office of Licensing and Trademarks in early 2013. Dani lives in Chicago and will soon be sworn in to the Illinois Bar. Dani may be reached at

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