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Museums for sale Public vs. private art debate ignites in Detroit

Kimberly Brown with Urban Landscape, a drawing by her late husband, Philip Brown, which has been donated to the Detroit Institute of Arts

In May 2013, Christie’s contemporary art auction set record prices when paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jackson Pollock, and others sold for a record $495 million. Soon after, news broke that Detroit’s financial manager, Kevyn Orr, was considering selling the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to help pay for the city’s debts.

The announcement caused uproar in the national art community. Questions emerged. Under what circumstances is it acceptable for city or state government to pawn public treasures to pay debt? The question is multifaceted. Detroit, Mich. is one of the most financially challenged areas in the country and, as Christie’s proved last month, art is still a hot commodity in a slowly recovering post-recession economy. However, those who donate work to museums do so to make art available to everyone and not a privileged few. Yet record auction sales in recent years have been largely the result of private investors who, in may cases, have the economic power to outbid museums for important works of art.

So, in an age when museums are already at a financial disadvantage to acquire new work, potential donators might see Detroit’s plight as a discouraging sign to avoid gifting work to all public institutions nationwide. Donations in the name of public art could dwindle significantly, especially if that generous gesture could be potentially rescinded at a future date when the museum’s hometown needs cash. But quick cash does not equal an economic fix. Reducing debt is not a long-term plan; rather it puts a Band-Aid on a bigger problem — the need for financial growth, new industry, and job creation.

Kimberly Brown, a resident of Michigan, decided to give some of her late husband’s artwork to the DIA. Philip Brown received his master’s degree in fine art from the Slade School of Fine Arts, University College London in 1984. He worked as an artist in residence at Lady Lodge Art Centre in Peterborough and as a graphic artist here in the United States prior to his early death in January 2005. Brown decided to share her husband’s passion with her community.

“I want to make sure that my husband’s work is available to everyone. I do not want it hidden away in my house. It is fine art. It needs to be viewed by the public. Some of his work was inspired by Detroit. It needs to be viewed by the people of that great city. Phil admired industry. He admired labor. His work celebrates both.”

Michigan’s senate supports a bill to protect the DIA should Detroit declare bankruptcy, but the state house will not vote on the bill until the fall. A victory for the DIA will be a victory for everyone who values art and community.

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at