October 21, 2013 at 1:00 am

Mayoral candidates differ on sale of art

The Detroit Institute of Arts is in danger losing some of its treasures to satisfy creditors if the city of Detroit receives court approval for bankruptcy. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Mayoral candidates Mike Duggan and Benny Napoleon have taken the opposite stance over a potential sale of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection as part of the city’s bankruptcy.

The candidates’ face-off reflects the ethical divide polarizing Metro Detroit, where some argue passionately that the needs of pensioners and decent city services outweigh the sanctity of museum art, while others say such sales would damage the museum, Detroit and the state of Michigan. At the same time, the debate may be a little irrelevant, since experts agree Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy involves no official role for the mayor.

Speaking last week to a group of lesbian and gay supporters, Detroit mayoral candidate Mike Duggan said he would fight tooth and nail to block the sale of any art.

In contrast, Duggan said his opponent, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, told the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau on Tuesday that he would sell DIA artwork before laying off a single police officer.

"I am against selling the assets. I am against giving away the water department, against selling the art, I'm against taking away the retirees’ pensions,” Duggan reiterated Sunday. “I believe we can come out with a plan of adjustment that gets the budget balanced in the long run without taking away any of those assets.”

He called selling art a temporary, “one-year” solution.

Napoleon says DIA works should not be protected from liquidation to satisfy creditors. “I will not jeopardize the public safety of this city — of the people in the neighborhoods — by laying off one police officer in order to preserve the art collection at the DIA,” he said last week.

“While I value the art collection as a cultural and educational institution in this city and region,” Napoleon added, “our No. 1 priority as a city is to ensure the health, safety and well-being of citizens first and foremost. If (city retirees’) pensions are on the table for a possible reduction, then the art held by the DIA should be on the table as well.”

In May, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr announced he was counting the DIA’s collection among city assets susceptible to sale in the bankruptcy. While he has said he would rather “monetize” the museum’s collection without actually selling it, Orr hasn’t taken possible sales off the table.

Under Chapter 9, the emergency manager must submit a Plan of Adjustment that has to be approved by the bankruptcy court.

Bankruptcy attorney Stuart Gold at Gold Lange & Majoros in Southfield disputes whether a mayor could have any influence.

“From a bankruptcy point of view,” Gold said, “it’s all in hands of the emergency manager. I suppose the mayor could make a proposal to either sell or not sell the art, but I don’t think he’d have any power to effectuate that.”

Still, Duggan cites his 30-year experience working with Lansing, adding, “I intend to engage the E.M. every single day and hope to develop good relations with him and the governor. I’m aiming for what’s best for Detroit, not the short-term interest of the bankruptcy.”

For his part, Napoleon said, “I have no intention of being a do-nothing mayor while waiting for an emergency manager to leave this city. I believe the emergency manager law is unconstitutional and Kevyn Orr is here illegally because the citizens of this city did not elect him.

“If the federal court says otherwise, I will request as the elected mayor of the people that I manage the departments while Orr addresses the fiscal issues.”

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