As the City of Detroit’s (the City) bankruptcy case enters its final phase, and confirmation of its plan of adjustment seems all but certain, the future of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) appears assured. This has not always been the case, since how the DIA’s valuable art collection would be handled was a key point of contention between the City and several of its creditors. In retrospect, the struggle for the future of the DIA is interesting for several reasons. The first of those reasons is now likely to remain an unanswered question: Had the City wished to sell all or part of the DIA’s collection, could it have done so, or was the collection (or certain parts of it) held in charitable trust or otherwise subject to enforceable donor restrictions? It is an important question, not least because the law addressing the question of enforceability of donor restrictions (particularly in bankruptcy) is sparse and inconclusive. The second reason the DIA discussion continues to be interesting is for the light that it sheds on how art is valued. Art appraisals are seldom public documents, and competing appraisals that include critiques of the other’s assumptions, methodologies, and conclusions, are rarer still. The third reason the DIA discussion has been important is for its focus on the role of art (specifically, publicly-available art) in a city’s self-image and life. This part of the discussion has played a small role in the case directly, but has played a much larger role in the public discussion surrounding the DIA.
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