The art and museum worlds have been intently following Detroit’s possible sale of its art collection — one that includes a self-portrait by Van Gogh and works by Diego Rivera and Henri Matisse — to raise funds for the bankrupt city. Though nothing’s been finalized, it’s being reported that Christie’s will conduct an appraisal of the collection. 

While universities and private institutions have resorted to selling off their art for years, the Detroit situation is unusual, partly because it’s unusual for a city to own an art collection — especially one worth $1 billion. We talked to the Gibbes Museum’s executive director, Angela Mack, to get a local response to what’s happening in Michigan. “That in itself is a testament to Detroit’s history — the fact that the city has amassed works of art for the people of Detroit,” she says. “In the long run, [selling] would be a huge detriment not just to the city of Detroit, but to society as a whole about the role of art in this country.” 

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a European city considering selling off works of art. “It’s very unnerving,” Mack says. “It speaks a lot about who we are as a country … I don’t buy the idea that art is a luxury. To me, it is fundamental to people’s existence. It’s going to be very difficult to watch if [the sale] comes out. Once that art is gone, it’s gone.”

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