Monday’s news that Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr hired the New York auction house Christie’s to appraise the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection of masterpieces struck a nerve across the political — and cultural— spectrum. For many, the notion that Detroit would sell off long-held public treasures, including paintings by Vincent Van Gough and Andy Warhol, has become something of proxy battle over the rights of ordinary Americans to experience high art and culture, and about whether a poor city can have nice things.
When New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in support of selling a portion of the DIA collection to pay off creditors, another critic, Hrag Vartanian at the blog Hyperallergic, wondered if Schjeldahl would “suggest that Greece sell the Parthenon to pay its crippling national debt?”
“How about Italy or Spain or Portugal or Ireland, which have financial problems of their own — should they sell off national treasures, maybe a national forest, or part of their coastline to pay creditors?” Vartanian wrote.
Two days later, Schjeldahl changed his mind. He pointed to estimates that selling parts of the collection wouldn’t come close to paying for Detroit’s pensions as one of the reasons for his change of heart.
He also, rightly, acknowledges the loss Detroiters would experience if the public art were suddenly whisked off to private auction, quoting a friend who wrote to him of “‘the anger of the grandmother, the artist, the Detroit teenager just discovering art — the regular or semi-regular museum-goer who has four or five favorite paintings and is on the cusp of discovering more, who lives in Detroit (by choice or not) and now must watch them sell those three or four works off, and everything else.‘”
When it comes to cold, hard numbers, Nora Caplan-Bricker at The New Republic did the math, noting that while the collection could sell for something in the neighborhood of $2 billion, Michigan’s cultural institutions generate that same figure in tourist dollars. Then there is the fact that Detroit’s debt is $18 billion, a princely sum that selling the collection would not come close to raising.
As we mull the ethics at play in the DIA battle, it helps to think about assets that other cities have sold in the name of solvency.
Credit: Peter J. Bellis on Flickr
Chicago infamously privatized all 36,000 of its parking meters under the administration of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, which contracted the meters to Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, a Morgan Stanley subsidiary, in a 75-year lease. But that’s not even Chicago’s biggest contract. The city also leased its Skyway Toll in a 99-year deal for a $1.83-billion payday.
A Symphony Hall
Newark Symphony Hall and Newark Boys Chorus School. Credit: Hudconja via Wikimedia Commons
George Gershwin, Marian Anderson and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had all performed at the Newark Symphony Hall before the cultural gem fell on tough times in the ’60s (along with the rest of the New Jersey city). While Mayor Cory Booker’s administration had been raising money for the hall’s renewal, a budget crisis pushed the city sell it in a 17-building package deal for $87 million. In the deal, Newark also sold its police precincts, firehouses and municipal courthouse.
Shares in the Airport
A ramp at Auckland International. Credit: Phillip Capper on Flickr
Over the years, Auckland, New Zealand has sold shares of its Auckland International Airport to provide income for the city. The airport isn’t just the biggest in New Zealand, but the fourth biggest airport in Oceania. In 2002, the city council was considering selling its entire stake (25.6 percent), but instead decided to sell just half. The deal came much to the disapproval of Aucklanders, bringing in NZ$190.8 million (around $95.6 million).
Street maintenance in Seattle. Credit: Mike McGinn on Flickr
Louisville, Ky. sold the naming rights for 350 potholes, in exchange for the $3,000 it would take to fix them, to its home state’s namesake fast-food company: Kentucky Fried Chicken. The potholes were filled, then branded with the logo “Re-freshed by KFC.” Then-mayor Jerry Abramson spoke to NPR about the contract, stating that it arose after KFC asked how it could help. “You know, obviously cities are struggling all over America, and you do what you can,” Abramson said. “That gave us 350 potholes that we could fill without asking for the 11 herbs and spices.”
An Ancient Egyptian Sculpture
Sekhemka, the 4,000-year-old statue. Credit: Ruth Thomas of the Save Sekhemka Action Group
One British town has actually put a historical artifact up for sale. According to the Telegraph, the Northampton borough council made plans to sell an Ancient Egyptian sculpture as soon as it discovered its worth from an insurance assessment. The statue Sekhemka stands in the city’s museum and is thought to date to 2,400 BC. Spencer Joshua Alwyne Compton, the second Marquess of Northampton, whose passions included archeology and geology, brought Sekhemka to England in the mid-1800s. His grandson donated it to the museum after his passing.
Northamption is looking to sell the statue for £2 million (that’s around $3.11 million.) However, a lawsuit has put the sale on hold. The current Marquess of Northampton is disputing the council’s authority to sell the artifact, arguing that the terms of his ancestor’s donation forbid it.
Cassie Owens is a regular contributor to Next City. Her writing has also appeared at CNN.com, Philadelphia City Paper and other publications.