By Ian Bourland

(Credit: Image from the Detroit Institute of Arts)

The hollowing out of America’s former industrial centers in the Rust Belt is by now an old, if persistent, story: manufacturing jobs go overseas; service and creative industries replace them; some cities, such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, Brooklyn and Seattle, reinvent themselves. Other cities have had a rougher time with the transition, and Detroit has, for years, been an icon of an America that is quickly receding, another predominantly black city crushed under the millstone of globalization.

Despite all that, Detroit’s clout as a cultural center has stubbornly persisted. From Motown to Jack White, the city has long been known for a musical regionalism that is a touchstone for the country as a whole. And Detroit’s former affluence and always on-the-bubble potential as a node for the “creative class” is enshrined in the encyclopedic Detroit Institute of Arts on the one-hand and the street art and activism-oriented Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit on the other.

The DIA, founded in 1885, is distinct among major museums of its stature for being owned entirely by the city. While other major collections that were expanded and given permanent homes at the turn of the 20th century — the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art — are largely insulated by independent boards from municipal financial woes and fiercely protected by donors and constituents, it appears that the DIA’s collections are on the chopping block in the wake of the Detroit’s much publicized declaration of bankruptcy.

Until the past week, the museum’s directors have insisted that the wide-ranging and celebrated collection of Old Masters, African, Middle Eastern, Oceanic, and modern works would not go up for auction to satisfy Detroit’s creditors. But The New York Times reported last Friday that, although such an auction would likely be appealed in court, Detroit “cannot negotiate in good faith with … creditors by taking assets off the table.” And while the firesale comparisons provide a newscycle worth of schadenfreude and one-liners, the significance of the DIA’s liquidation are hard to overstate.

Museums, of course, have tremendous symbolic power, especially those constructed while the engines of industrialization brought America into the world spotlight. Those great Beaux-Arts museums that cropped up in the downtowns of our major coastal cities suggested not only prestige and an ascendant class of patrons, they symbolized authority and permanence, and a duty to conserve the objects they accessioned. The Beaux-Arts Museum helped usher the transition from the transient boomtowns of the frontier to organs of global commerce that could participate in the collection of colonial artifacts and the cultivation of its upwardly mobile citizens. Detroit, in particular, was synonymous with both the Great Migration and the production of a middle-class that could thrive in Michigan’s manufacturing corridor. Trips to the museum were proof of a class mobility, underwritten as a sort of public good. And the DIA took that mandate seriously, amassing what might now appear a disproportionately broad and deep collection for a city on the lake. Although officials have not made clear which holdings in particular might be up for sale, consider the following contenders:

  • From one of the strongest collections of traditional sub-Saharan work, spanning Coptic Ethiopian artifacts to a Kongo “hunter” figure and much in between, buyers might take particular interest in a wooden palace door carved in 1920 by the Nigerian Olowe of Ise. Not only is Olowe known for the idiosyncratic and evocative reliefs in his primarily architectural oeuvre, he was so reputed among his Yoruban patrons and, later, European and American curators, that he is one of the few African artists of the colonial era to be known by name. Vibrantly chromatic, standing six-feet high and 10-inches deep, the panel would be a showstopper in any private or public collection.

  • The DIA is known for its General Motors-underwritten center for African American Art and houses an history of black artists working through the major currents of regionalist, modernist and contemporary modes: Al Loving and Sam Gilliam should be household names for their mid-century abstraction; Beauford Delaney and Jacob Lawrence were key figures in WWII-era modernism; Romare Bearden and Carrie Mae Weems are household names. More financially driven speculators might be interested, of course, in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1899 "Flight into Egypt." At the turn of the century, America was largely an artistic backwater; Tanner was not only the most celebrated black artist in the world, he brought international repute to the young republic. This painting is an example of a shift in his career from folk life to biblical scenes, reflecting his stature not as a regional painter, but a cosmopolitan who wanted to take on heavy duty subject matter.

  • Although less obvious to much of the public, one of an encyclopedic museum’s key contributions is its conservation and archiving of prints, drawings and photographs. Here we can see an artist’s process in motion, from studies of more iconic paintings to contact sheets which yielded that final cropping. The DIA’s holdings — you can search 3,300 of them online — include late Renaissance examples by Albrecht Durer and Dutch Golden Age master Rembrandt van Rijn. While the photos tend to be earlier American works, the DIA stands to lose a more recent accession, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s 1995 silver gelatin "Hall of Thirty-Three Bays," a departure from his more abstract, landscape pictures and evidence of the DIA’s wide reach, which here includes a contemporary leader of the Japanese avant-garde.

  • Although the DIA’s contemporary holdings might seem comparatively minor, it is home to groupings of favorites such as American glass-master Dale Chihuly and crowd-pleaser Claes Oldenberg. More arresting are playful takes on modernist painting (“accumulations”) by the “nouveau realiste” Frenchman Arman and strong examples of Marylander Morris Louis’s post-painterly abstraction. The real gem here might be "Accession II," a seductive and alien take on the hard gestalt forms of 1960s minimalism by Eva Hesse, a brilliant artist who died before her time and fused the industrial with the hand-made to unsettlingly biomorphic effect.

  • Before the current embrace of contemporary art by large museums, a key measure of the encyclopedic museum was its European holdings, from the Renaissance through impressionism. There are some 700 years represented at the DIA, and one will find Rodin and Degas, van Eyck and Rubens in the collection. One of the museum’s rightly celebrated works is van Gogh’s 1888 "Portrait of Postman Roulin." While van Gogh aficionados might travel to the East Coast or Europe to see his most postcard-ready works, 1888 was a big year for VVG, and this portrait captures the particular quality of life in small-town southern France, from the ruddy-faced, if hirsute local character to the vivid, saturated fields of color with which he backgrounded his subjects.

Again, it is unclear if and when such works might go on sale and whether the court will uphold the results of the auctions. The Times reported, however, that the collection could net upwards of $2 billion. It sounds like a lot of money, and it is if you are determining new acquisitions for a museum department, but not so much in light of Detroit’s reported $20 billion in outstanding debt (to say nothing of future budget deficits).

And this is important: While it is increasingly common to connect the undoing of Detroit with the decline of the 20th century middle class, a sale of the DIA’s holdings would move the story squarely into the more recent zone of widespread foreclosure and repossession. The downside of bankruptcy, of course, is that everyone gets back pennies on the dollar. This is particularly bad news for a museum, which competes on the open market with an global cadre of collectors, including dealers, “moguls” such as Jay-Z and magnates such as Charles Saatchi, as well as transnational companies.

In other words: If Detroit sells off its artistic patrimony to service 10 percent of its current obligations, it’s unlikely to get it back. For a city that is synonymous with the American dream of upward mobility, liquidating one of the very bastions of cultural mobility to appease creditors would not only be a rather concrete example of a shift in what it means to be “middle class,” it would also mark the art world’s further movement into the realm of commerce and farther away from the public trust.