Problems in Motown

The Emergency Manager of Detroit is considering selling off a large portion of the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art to pay off the city's $15 billion debt. Kevyn Orr has said he is investigating whether the collection could be sold to help ease the city's burden of debt.

The implications of such a sale would be staggering and one can imagine that many lawyers will be working overtime on this issue.

I am not a legal expert and cannot comment on the issues at play here, though I have to believe that some of these works of art were donated to the museum with the understanding that they would remain in the institution's collection.

I am not even going to comment on the morality, or lack thereof, of this concept. There are many, many art experts who are already making the important points about the challenge of arts institutions using their collections to pay off their own bills, let alone pay off the debt obligations of the municipalities in which they reside.

What has been missing in all I have read about this fascinating, if unhappy, situation is the impact a sale might have on the long-term financial health of the city of Detroit.

Selling off the collection of the DIA is not dissimilar to an arts organization reducing its artistic aspirations in an effort to reduce financial liabilities.

I have written endlessly on the topic. Arts institutions that cut programming almost always end up sicker; their donors and audience members get bored and look elsewhere for entertainment. While boards often believe that cutting back is the road to health, it is, much more frequently, the road to disaster.

I have to believe the same thing is true of the potential sale of the DIA collection.

One of the reasons to visit Detroit is to see the extraordinary collection of the DIA. Its paintings by van Gogh and Matisse and Breugel and so many others are astonishing. It has been my pleasure to visit these works on several visits spanning three decades.

If Detroit is stripped of these glories, if they are dispersed to private homes across the globe, there will be less incentive for many to visit the city.

And if fewer people come to Detroit, the recovery of this city will be stalled.

Our cultural assets are net contributors to our economic health. They create tourism and support the auxiliary businesses that benefit - from hotels and restaurants to parking garages and taxis. This, of course, is one of the central arguments in favor of government support for the arts.

Detroit already feels a bit empty compared to the glory years decades ago. I have been lucky to have visited the city when the auto industry was in full swing. It was a great place to visit. These days, there are too many empty blocks and too few visitors.

Can selling off this magnificent collection help bring people back to Motown? Do tourists visit the cities with the lowest levels of debt?

I doubt it.