Pledging a fight to prevent the sale of treasured works at the Detroit Institute of Arts in a potential city bankruptcy, a top state lawmaker has introduced a bill to do just that — although it’s not clear a state law would suffice in a federal bankruptcy court.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Randy Richardville, the Senate majority leader, would codify into state law an argument that the museum’s leaders have made amid the uproar that resulted after the Detroit Free Press revealed last week that DIA art is at risk if Detroit files for municipal bankruptcy protection.
Richardville said the bill would be put into committee next week for discussions. Among those discussions is likely to be how the bill, if made into law, would square with federal bankruptcy law.
Laura Beth Bartell, a professor of bankruptcy law at Wayne State University, cast doubt on whether a state law passed now could protect the DIA collection from the possibility that emergency city manager Kevyn Orr could order a sell-off. Federal law in general trumps state laws, and a state law that limits the powers that Orr could exercise under the federal bankruptcy code probably would not stand judicial review.
State officials, Orr and others insist there is no proposal on the table to use paintings or other DIA jewels to pay down Detroit’s $15 billion to $17 billion in bond debts and retiree pension and health care costs. But Orr has spoken with DIA leadership to alert them about the possibility of creditors seeking repayment of debts through sales of city-owned assets such as the museum and its artwork.
The issue also has raised questions about the propriety of placing so much emphasis on artworks when pressing quality-of-life issues like public safety and emergency response, vacant and abandoned homes, and street lights remain a daily struggle in the city.
Senate Bill 401 would amend a state law passed in 2010 to allow for a regional millage that voters approved to support DIA operations. It would add a key provision: “An art institute shall adhere to the code of ethics for museums published by the American Alliance of Museums or a successor organization.”
Kirk Profit, a former state representative and a lobbyist for the DIA, said that the bill would add the heft of state law to the DIA’s argument that professional ethics for museums preclude sales of art to satisfy debts. Many fear such a sale would diminish the DIA’s stature as one of the nation’s leading museums and unleash a backlash among its biggest supporters and donors.