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Motor-City Woes: Detroit Institute of Arts Seeks Tri-County Property Levy CORRECTED

Detroit Institute of Arts

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I would ordinarily question a museum’s trying to circumvent the usual government taxation and appropriation process, as the Detroit Institute of Arts now seems to be doing. DIA has launched a campaign seeking voter approval on Aug. 7 of a three-county (Wayne, Macomb and Oakland, which is the state’s wealthiest), 10-year “millage”—essentially a property tax of one-hundredth of one percent (.0001) of a home’s assessed valuation per year (i.e., $20 for a $200,000 home). [CORRECTION: My earlier version stated, incorrectly, that this was one-thousandth of one percent.]

The money would be earmarked as operating support (not endowment) for this chronically underfunded museum, which over the years has lost all the substantial financial support that it used to depend upon from the State of Michigan and the economically struggling City of Detroit, which owns the museum’s building, property and collection. The DIA also receives nothing from Wayne County, where it is located.

The money would give the museum “the kind of financial stability it hasn’t had for 40 years,” said Graham W.J. Beal, the museum’s director, as quoted by David Runk of the Associated Press.

The DIA’s “Art is For Everyone” campaign has posted a lengthy FAQ page, explaining why the money is needed and for what it will be used. In exchange for the counties’ support, the museum has promised free admission to their residents. (Adult admission is ordinarily $8.)

In a scare tactic, a television ad urging voter approval indicates that the money is needed “to keep the DIA from closing its doors.” Without the money, the museum may significantly cut back on hours and programs, but the threat of closure, though real, is not imminent.

As Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press reports, controversy has predictably erupted, with at least one state legislature suggesting that the museum deplete its endowment to address budgetary shortfalls—clearly contrary to responsible nonprofit management.

In 2008, the Detroit Zoo received voter approval for a similar levy. Saving a locally important, nationally eminent cultural, educational and civic resource, not to mention a repository for some of the world’s great masterpieces, should be at least as worthy a project as rescuing the zoo.

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