In recent weeks there has been widespread consternation in the art world over the possible sale of works from the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in order to help offset the city's immense burden of debt following its official bankruptcy. A city manager, Kevyn Orr, has been appointed by the governor to assess the feasibility (and legality) of selling city assets, including city-owned artworks that have long been part of the museum's core collection. Among the most important encyclopedic art museums in the country, Detroit holds masterpieces that are in the first tier of the most treasured works of art in America, ranging from Rembrandt to Van Gogh to Diego Rivera.



Franklin Robinson, former director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, in a recent NY Times notice raised an important point about defending the public benefits and purpose of museums in the disastrous context of Detroit's financial crisis and as it affects the Detroit Institute of Arts. He echoes art critic Peter Schjeldahl's earlier (since retracted) argument that trading art for pensions is a no-brainer and the only humane response possible. Nevertheless, Robinson understands that proceeds from selling off works from DIA - if such a sale is legal - will not alleviate the plight of city workers, who, as always, will be the last to find relief after private creditors with greater clout receive whatever assets the city can muster.



But the larger questions remain and are never going to be addressed by the unmeasurable standards by which art is judged by those individuals for whom it is essential and meaningful. Certainly, not to the satisfaction of the majority of public employees whose lives are literally at stake.



Even more suspect are those arguments about the economic impact of art museums on the financial well-being of their communities. If economic impact is measured by the quality of a collection or a museum's exemplary education and outreach, then Detroit's situation is even more dire than imagined. There is a social contract between government and its people (legally binding in the case of pension benefits) addressing basic human needs first; and only after bread, shelter, safety and health care (as hard fought as that has been in this benighted country) have been secured can the arts reasonably be considered a necessity.



Yet, there is a fairly simple solution to the optics of collection-rich museums located in towns and cities where basic services are threatened by budget shortfalls or painful tax increases. Art museums have traditionally not placed monetary values on their collections except for insurance purposes. Indeed, most of the older, larger collections in this country are largely self-insured. Monetary value only becomes an issue when and if museums decide to "deaccession" (museum-ese for selling) works from their collections. There is a reason, as someone observed, why it is particularly difficult for individuals to donate art to Harvard. When something enters the Harvard collection, it cannot be sold or disposed of except under the most extraordinary circumstances. This used to be holy writ for most museums, but, regrettably, the booming art market in an otherwise down economy has seduced many institutions to place significant, museum-quality objects on the block, ostensibly to strengthen the remaining collection through new acquisitions, although how this plays out over time is highly questionable. Mostly, the current practice of too casual deaccessioning devolves to the detriment of a museum's very mission and, not incidentally, damages relationships with current donors and prospects for future donations - absent the usual tax incentives that are also called into question when museums monetize their collections.



Those artworks sold by museums usually disappear into private collections, perhaps to eventually resurface in exhibitions, enhancing the artwork's value and further enriching those new owners, including art dealers. Rarely do deaccessioned works find their way to public institutions for the simple reason that museums can no longer afford the very objects that other museums decide to sell. If art museums didn't have enough credibility issues with the vast number of non-museum goers, this is a spectacularly effective means by which to undermine the trust of even those who do support museums.



Again, the solution is simple in concept but difficult in practice, because it removes aspects of control of collections from museum administrators and curators and places it more firmly in the realm of public benefit and trust as governed by law rather than the vagaries of curatorial taste, administrative arrogance, and relativistic expedience. Self-regulation established through guidelines articulated by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and AAM (Alliance of American Museums) has not discouraged this relatively recent and increasing phenomenon of museum deaccessions.
However, if institutional tax-exempt status was contingent on strict adherence to non-disposal of museum objects - except for rare cases of extreme damage (as to be un-exhibitable) or becoming potentially dangerous to the public (i.e., structural defects in a large sculpture) or a radical change of institutional mission (i.e., re-focusing a collection from fine to decorative arts) - then those objects in public collections permanently lose all market value.



If a museum simply cannot continue to exist (or radically shifts its collecting parameters), the option best serving the public would be transfer of the permanent collection to another institution (preferably in the same community) where the collection can be properly cared for and exhibited. Otherwise, museums need to grow up and accept fundamental responsibilities - add storage capacity and tighten guidelines for the acceptance of gifts and purchase of new works of art with an eye toward future generations and the notion that what's out today will be in tomorrow.



When I was a museum director, I was often asked how much is this or that work of art worth? I always replied, "Nothing in terms of dollars." Which is to say, artworks held in trust for public benefit have no commercial value, as they become price-less when owned by a museum.



No one believes Detroit or any museum should be forced to sell works of art from their collections any more than the Detroit library should be forced to sell its books on Amazon. But the broader financial argument in favor of doing so has been made by us- the unintended consequence of deaccessioning - and is the inevitable result of our own cannibalizing behavior. We recall the courtroom statue of justice. The irony of her blindfold in a visual arts context is both sad and telling. To her - and to the law - assets of various kinds all weigh the same and looks don't count.



Nor is the DIA entirely blameless.



Several years ago this museum sold at auction a magnificent painting by Adolph Gottlieb, close relative to an equally splendid example at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo. The latter, yet another struggling Great Lakes art museum, engaged in a deaccessioning binge several years ago, making headlines when several outright masterpieces were sold at auction. In theory, funds from selling these mostly pre-19th-century artworks would be used to buy additional contemporary art. A handful of the deaccessioned works were acquired by museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a measure of the significance of these objects), but most landed in private collections here and abroad. Moreover, many in the community argued that the works sold reflected the long history of the museum (second oldest in the country) and a broadly encyclopedic educational mission based on an abbreviated survey of world cultures unique to Buffalo and irreplaceable in that community.



In retrospect, it seems reasonable to assert that the essential worth of those lost treasures resides in how an extraordinarily rare sculpture of a Hittite Mountain Deity tells the story of an entire era and its mysterious culture. Along the way, and in realms of the spirit and imagination, this five-inch-tall figure from the cradle of Western civilization enriched the museum's superb modern and contemporary collection, collapsing and coalescing distant millennia of visual expression into something truly valuable: a small, plangent figure speaking across time and terrain to our common lineage and shared humanity.



Chris Crosman, a former director of The Farnsworth Art Museum, lives in Thomaston.