Famed museum could fall victim to Detroit bankruptcy

Famed museum could fall victim to Detroit bankruptcy

DETROIT - There are few places where the former majesty of the US auto industry is more keenly captured than among the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Those stunning, sun-drenched walls could be lost to public view if the museum's collection is allowed to be even partially sold to pay off Detroit's creditors during the city's bankruptcy proceedings.

"This is really an existential threat," warned Annmarie Erickson, the museum's chief operating officer.

"Selling art could close the museum."

Founded in 1885, the museum has amassed a world-class collection through the patronage of press barons and auto industry giants.

It was the first American museum to buy works by Van Gogh and Matisse. It has one of just two works by the Dutch master Bruegel that can be viewed in the United States.

There are galleries devoted to African American, Asian and Native American art and others containing modern works by Picasso, Warhol and Rothko.

Rivera's "Detroit Industry" frescos - a grand vision depicting the benefits and harm of industry and the beautiful complexity of Ford's Rouge plant - are the heart of the Beaux-Arts temple that draws nearly 600,000 visitors a year.

But, like the Motor City itself, the museum has a troubled history.

'A death spiral'

The city - which owns the building and the collection - stopped providing funds to buy art in the 1950s and eventually withdrew support for daily operations. The state of Michigan stepped in to help fund the museum in the 1980s and early 1990's and then in 1997 a non-profit took over.

The museum finally got on sound financial footing last year when voters in three counties agreed to a new tax that provides US$23 million a year to fund its operations.

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