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Arts Funding: A Millage Isn’t The Answer

In August, when the Detroit Institute of Arts won support in its three surrounding counties for a tiny property tax — called a millage — to support its operations for 10 years, a lot of people hailed it as the start of a new funding model for the arts.

It wasn’t and it won’t be, imho. I thought then, and now, that the DIA/Detroit was a special case. Nearby in Ann Arbor, residents agreed with me on election day last week: they voted down a millage to fund a comprehensive public art program.

True, public art is not the same as any museum, let alone the glorious DIA. But I doubt many museums could duplicate the special circumstances the DIA found itself in — which was all part of the winning rationale among voters.

As the Michigan Daily reports with respect to Ann Arbor:

The millage was an alternative to the current public arts funding program Percent for Art, which has encountered difficulty in providing public arts projects under heavy restrictions that limit displays to permanent art installations on specified government properties….

The tax would have cost the average homeowner about $11 a month and was expected to bring in about $450,000 annually. The new model for funding included a mill tax model for funding public arts in Ann Arbor. Instead of the current system, which takes the funds from different departments in the city, the funding for projects would come directly from the residents.

In late August, the Ann Arbor City Council decided to put the millage on the November ballot, undoubtedly eyeing the success in Detroit. Ann Arbor residents had apparently complained about the percent-for-art model, enacted in 2007, which stipulates that any capital project for the city must set aside one percent of its funding for public art — much like other cities.

I can’t say I’m happy about any of this — except that it reinstates a little reality in the discussions about arts funding. Personally, I don’t think the public will support a direct tax for the arts in anything but unusual circumstances.





  1. The other issue is a jurisdictional one. It’s easy to look at these success stories and think “WE can do that,” but the fact of the matter is that STATE tax laws VERY often preclude this approach EVEN IF the local city or county wants to give it a shot. Many states (e.g. Florida) jealously guard taxing authority and don’t allow local jurisdictions to even put such questions to a popular vote.

    Moreover, once these kinds of things pass (just ask Denver or Salt Lake City), other interests start clamoring for a piece of it–you need to have a defensive plan when your offense is successful. The political buildup is one thing (GETTING the tax) and follow through (KEEPING the tax) is not for the timid, that’s for sure. Having said that, kudos to the coalition that prevailed in Detroit.

  2. Public funding of public art cannot be compared to museum or other arts funding. Public art is integrated within a city’s infrastructure. It is one of THE key components of improving public spaces physically, economically and social for the public. These projects are a major source of jobs for teams of fabricators material suppliers, installers and designers and engineers. Taxes are levied for public infrastructure: incorporating art within these projects is one of the key tools in improving our economy and cities.

  3. I agree with Dobrzynski about the particular case of Ann Arbor, but millages have been effective in certain types of metropolitan situations like Detroit, St. Louis and Denver. Someone may have studied this more definitively, but my impression is that the millage solution should be considered when you have significant urban cultural treasures in jeopardy because the city where they grew up has been hollowed out by a population (and tax base) which has moved to the surburbs. But government arts policy is a blunt instrument wherever it appears, including Percent for Art programs, and the devil is always in the details.


  1. […] Dobrzynski’s column was about the rejection, by the citizens of Ann Arbor, MI, of the impositi…, one whose current funding source is arguably more bureaucratic in nature. And it was about why the people of Ann Arbor rejected it. […]

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