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Should Detroit Bail Out By Selling Van Gogh?


Now, we head to Detroit. We've reported a number of times on the city's serious financial difficulties. The city owes billions of dollars to creditors and the governor of Michigan has appointed an emergency manager to try to settle the city's finances.

Now, that emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, reportedly has his eye on the Detroit Institute of Arts, where the collection includes works by world renowned figures like Matisse, Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Jerome Vaughn is with us to tell us more. He's the news director at member station WDET in Detroit.

Jerome Vaughn, thanks so much for joining us once again.

JEROME VAUGHN: Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: First of all, could you just tell us about the role that the Detroit Institute plays in the life of the city? I would imagine that school kids all have memories of visits there.

VAUGHN: Oh, for decades and decades, field trips - one of the first introductions to art will be at the DIA, where you can go and see something painted by Van Gogh or a sculpture by Rodin. It's something that's very important and not just here in Detroit, but nationally, it's one of the top six collections in the entire country, so there's a lot of love of the DIA here in Detroit.

MARTIN: So what's been the reaction to the idea that the museum might - well, some of these works might be sold off? And I just want to mention here again that it's unusual among major city museums in that the city owns the building and the collection. Do I have that right? But that the daily operations are actually run by a nonprofit. So what's been the reaction there?

VAUGHN: Well, the first reaction has really been shock and awe. I mean, people are stunned that this institution that they've come to love and the work that they've come to love could be potentially sold off to help pay down some of Detroit's debt. We've got a long-term debt of $15 billion. That's what's estimated right now. One of the reasons that emergency manager Kevyn Orr has come in to right the ship in a number of ways.

Even just, you know, our fiscal year deficit is going to be about $380 million, but I don't think anyone ever thought that the art at the DIA might be a solution to some of that debt.

MARTIN: You know, you can see where families face the same dilemma when they are in financial difficulties. I mean, you know, people have heard about the idea of selling off the family jewels - right - or selling off some land or selling off some kind of treasured heirloom.

You know, on the one hand, some people might say, well, that's common sense. You know, we've got to keep the family afloat. On the other hand, other people would say, well, you know, once it's gone, it's gone and we'll never get it back. Do you have any sense of where people in the city kind of fall on this or how that's shaking out?

VAUGHN: I think that same discussion has been happening over the past few days here in Detroit about the worth of art and the importance of art in the city's life and in individuals' life. You know, many folks have come out and said, you know, we've got to save this. We've got to save this. We've got to find a way to keep this from being sold. But, at the same time, there's another group of residents who are going, you know, while I love art, I'd rather have a police officer on my block. I'd rather have the fire department come and put out a fire when it's needed to be done, rather than to have this art.

And I think one of the surprising things that has really popped up in the past few years - and this is in many things in Detroit - has been a little bit of a racial component. Some African-Americans have said, you know, this has to do with European art. This has to do not with taking care of the people in the city, but suburbanites wanting to hold onto something that has been established here for a long time. And there's starting to be a little bit of an undertone of that in this conversation.

MARTIN: Interesting. Now, is it a settled issue that emergency manager Kevyn Orr will, in fact, put this art up for sale, I mean, which has been considered, I think, priceless, really? Or is it still something that is being debated? I mean, I guess what I'm asking is, does he even have a choice? Is it such a tangible asset that, really, his mandate requires that he offer it for sale or is there some debating room here or negotiating room here?

VAUGHN: I think there's a lot of negotiating room. One of Kevyn Orr's spokespersons said he doesn't want to sell the art. What he really wants to do now is get a sense of what is there and to see if that is something - some information that can be given to creditors to say, hey, you know, this is what's going on. He says some creditors have asked if that's going to be in play and so I think it's very preliminary in that sense right now.

The other thing is there's going to be a lot of legal maneuvering. The DIA has hired a bankruptcy attorney to see how to protect itself and because of this part nonprofit, you know, controlling the collection and the city owning the collection, that's something that's got to be worked out, as well as there's a regional millage to pay for the DIA. That's going to lead to other lawsuits, so there's a lot of legal work that's going to be happening. I don't think anyone has a real grasp of where this is going to end up.

MARTIN: Very, very briefly, Jerome, any idea how much the collection is worth? Because these are the kinds of pieces that never go on sale.

VAUGHN: That's right. The DIA says they've never really done an assessment because they've never thought about selling it. They say, you know, we're holding this in the public trust. One of the local papers here said, you know, one or two of the paintings alone could be worth more than $100 million each.


VAUGHN: One of them is Van Gogh's self-portrait. That could be $100 to $125 million alone.

MARTIN: Wow. Jerome Vaughn is the news director at member station WDET in Detroit. Jerome, thanks so much for joining us.

VAUGHN: Any time.


MARTIN: You've probably heard about minimalist design. Now, a growing chorus of middle-class parents say they're bringing that sensibility to family life, cutting back on all the music lessons, sports practices and summer camps and trying to enjoy life more by doing less. We'll talk about that in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.