The Detroit Free Press reports that the cash-strapped city, which owes $15 billion, is considering selling off the Detroit Institute of Arts collection to help pay creditors. Excerpt:

Liquidating DIA art to pay down debt likely would be a monstrously complicated, controversial and contentious process never before tested on such as large scale and with no certain outcome. The DIA is unusual among major civic museums in that the city retains ownership of the building and collection while daily operations, including fund-raising, are overseen by a nonprofit institution.

DIA Executive Vice President Annmarie Erickson said the museum has hired New York bankruptcy attorney Richard Levin of Cravath, Swaine & Moore to advise ways to protect the collection from possible losses. Levin is one of the nation’s leading bankruptcy attorneys and was active in the General Motors bankruptcy and other high-profile cases.

“We are standing by our contention and belief that we hold the collection in trust for the public,” Erickson said this evening. “And although to some it may seem to be an asset, we do not.”

Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Orr, said the art collection at the DIA must, however reluctantly, be considered one of the city’s assets in the current financial emergency as the city heads toward a possible bankruptcy filing.

“We have no interest in selling art,” Nowling said this evening. “I want to make that pretty clear. But it is an asset of the city to a certain degree. We’ve got a responsibility under the act to rationalize that asset, to make sure we understand what’s it’s worth.”

Gut reaction: I don’t see how a city in as much trouble as Detroit is can justify firewalling its city-owned art. That debt has to be paid by someone. Why shouldn’t the city sell off its paintings and sculptures? Why is that more important to the city than some other publicly owned assets that would have to be sold off? It would be a terrible loss to Detroit, but it’s not like the art would cease to exist; rather, it would go live in institutions around the country.

What do you think?