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Automakers Rally To Protect Detroit’s Art Collection

Three major automakers have pledged $26 million to help the Detroit Insitute of Arts reach its $100 million share of the grand bargain fund to help protect its artworks from being sold due to the City of Detroit's bankruptcy.
Three major automakers have pledged $26 million to help the Detroit Insitute of Arts reach its $100 million share of the grand bargain fund to help protect its artworks from being sold due to the City of Detroit's bankruptcy.Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The art collection housed under the the ornate roof of the Detroit Institute of Arts—think the MFA of the Motor City—includes prized pieces by van Gogh and Matisse. While creditors have long suggested auctioning off those pieces to help rescue the city from bankruptcy, the Detroit auto industry has intervened.

The Detroit Institute of Arts announced Monday that three major automakers have pledged $26 million to preserve its massive art collection. Ford Motor Company and General Motors have both offered $10 million, while Chrysler, the smallest of the three, offered $6 million.

For Chrysler and General Motors, the generous donation may be a way to pay it forward.

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Those two companies received massive bailouts from the federal government at the height of the recession. Since then, they have donated millions to various philanthropic causes, which aim to help Detroit emerge unscathed from bankruptcy.

The collection has prompted intense debate over how to wrest the city from bankruptcy. Creditors proposed selling it off to the highest bidder to help pay off the $18 million in liabilities incurred by the city. Opponents of the sale argued that the sale would strip the city of its cultural heritage.

The collection now houses masterpieces by Rembrandt, van Gogh, Bruegel and, Michelangelo. Many of those pieces were obtained by wealthy patrons of the arts during the Gilded Age, when the city was booming due to an escalation in manufacturing.

The Wedding Dance, for example, among the most expensive pieces owned by the Institute, is valued at up to 200 million—a price tag attached to the painting during an appraisal conducted last December. According to the New York Times, it is one of only five Bruegels now housed in American museums.

Many have argued that those paintings offer an untapped resource that Detroit could use to rescue itself from bankruptcy.

But opponents of the sale hope that the recent donation will help avoid sending the masterpieces to the chopping block.

Museum and city officials struck a compromise, nicknamed the “Grand Bargain,” earlier this year, agreeing to stop the sale if the Institute could raise $100 million.

That $100 million will go to help the retired city employees whose pensions were cut during the bankruptcy crisis. It joins $200 million allocated by the state and $370 million from private philanthropists, according to the New York Times.

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