January 16, 2014 5:29 PM EST

In a bankrupt city of such well-documented woes as blighted houses, broken streetlights and persistent crime, few issues have galvanized Detroiters like the possibility that their art museum could be stripped of its treasures.

That prospect became quite real after the city’s emergency manager was given the legal authority to explore selling pieces from the Detroit Institute of Arts to help settle the city’s nearly $18 billion debt. A Christie’s appraisal of the city-owned works pegged their value at $454 million to $867 million, which would–if they were sold–help shore up city retirees’ endangered pensions.

To avert that outcome, a group of foundations has been quietly working for months on a deal that would effectively buy the museum from the city, shielding it from future salvage raids. On Jan. 13, the consortium announced pledges of $330 million to do just that. The city would be required to use the money to defray debt and underwrite pensions.

Many hurdles remain. The pledges aren’t enough to match Christie’s appraisal, and Detroit’s creditors are certain to challenge what they view as a lowball valuation of the art. Yet if a deal can be arranged, it will be a rare bright spot for a city sorely in need of one. Nurtured with auto money in Detroit’s golden age, the museum is unlikely to be replicated in the current economy for decades, or maybe ever.

This appears in the January 27, 2014 issue of TIME.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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