It refers, of course, to the situation in the Detroit area. Next Tuesday, voters in the three counties whose residents most use the Detroit Institute of Arts will vote on whether or not to levy a tiny millage tax — $15 per $150,000 worth of property value — to support the museum. If not, director Graham Beal (left) told me, the museum will go into “a death spriral.”
Ordinarily, Beal would be blamed for letting the museum get so close to the brink, but no one I know or talked with about it would do that. Rather, some of his colleagues see his tenure there as rather heroic. Despite a deteriorating city around him and the worst economic conditions in Michigan in more than 50 years, the DIA has been operating in the black and has no debt.
And, as Samuel Sachs II, who preceded Beal as the DIA’s director, noted, “If you visit the museum, you don’t know it’s undergoing tough times. If a museum starts looking shabby, it’s really in trouble.” I didn’t go to Detroit for this story, but last year, when I was there, I would have agreed — the DIA looked splendid. When I told Beal about Sam’s comment last Friday, he complimented his “very stressed” staff. (Sorry, Sam, this was in the WSJ story but got cut.)
Still, as the article says, the DIA is at a point where it needs to ask donors, each year, for gifts to cover more than its operating funds, a model that’s simply not sustainable. I laid out the economics fairly succinctly, but if you would like to see it graphically, take a look at the charts published by the Detroit Free Press. The Free Press published its own narrative of the story, with much more detail, on July 22.
I can honestly say that I can’t think of what else the museum could be doing either, other than asking for public support — which the DIA has chosen to do with a millage tax. Today’s Free Press carried an exclusive poll showing that 69% will vote for the tax — but pollsters interviewed just 237 adults. True, Aug. 7 is a primary, so a small number of people are likely to vote, but still…
The DIA has made a gutsy move, and I just hope it works. It would be a tragedy to see that museum go into decline.
Here’s the link to my piece.
UPDATE: I can’t resist adding this piece on MLive, which in the process of reporting a rally on the millage, tells the tale of two kids who sold lemonade to raise money for the DIA. They took in $22.50 in 45 minutes.