Before the end of the year, Metro Detroit will likely cast a millage vote for the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). It will be a tough call in an economically depressed environment. However, the critical question to be answered is why anyone should pump more money into the DIA when city residents, and increasingly suburban patrons, show so little interest in supporting it or keeping it vibrant.
Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties are considering putting on the primary or general election ballot a 0.2-mill tax that, if passed, would cost homeowners of a $200,000 home $20 a year — for up to 20 years. Museum officials say the tax would enhance the $80 million endowment and allow the institution to thrive on the interest. The DIA’s operating budget is $24.7 million. Private donors contribute from $9 million to $12 million per year.
When the city transferred operations of the DIA to a nonprofit in 1998, it was thought that the museum would be able to increase its endowment and operate more effectively than it had under city management. Those noble objectives proved a bit optimistic. In 2009, after a $158 million expansion, the DIA restricted exhibit hours, laid off employees and spent less for traveling art exhibitions and performing arts projects. Without a dedicated millage, officials say, more layoffs and service reductions are in store.
Once recognized for its rich fusion of cultures, Detroit now finds most of its traditions and institutions at the mercy of political pressures and patron neglect. No longer does the museum get an “equity package” from the state. Detroit kicks in $375,000, which could be eliminated by a budget crunch. Grants to other cultural institutions are also squeezed by government appropriation cutbacks. Annual appropriations have also befallen the Detroit Historical Museum and Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Grants for the Detroit Public Library system, once one of the 10 largest and best equipped in the nation, are gone and the revenue generated by a separate millage falls far short of it needs.
The Detroit Science Center has closed its doors – again. Facing an uncertain future due to a possible city-subsidy reduction is the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, which from inception has had trouble attracting patrons in a city where 90 percent of residents are black. A regional tax was needed to keep the doors of the Detroit Zoo open.
A dynamic culture needs a steady center. However, Detroit’s cultural enlightenment erosion is now apparent. No longer does Detroit rank among world-class cities that typically support the arts. DIA visitors vary according to program offering, but the percentage of patrons who live in the city are probably in the single digits. Detroiters make no more than cameo appearances at other cultural institutions. As such, a shrinking but dedicated arts community is forced to seek financial alternatives to rescue a city on the verge of losing its reputation as the state’s cultural center.
Poor turnouts at cultural facilities provide evidence that Detroiters have become co-contributors to an unfolding tragedy in the city in which the arts have no role in the daily lives of families, schools or communities. Schools devote little time to cultural rites of passage. Rarely is art or literature emphasized. Children never learn that cultural collections are treasured assets that add depth and enrichment to our lives. With limited artistic exposure, the city yields to a runaway culture of idleness, drugs and crime that keep suburban visitors at bay.
Closing of the DIA would leave the city without a central historical depository to display artifacts or art masterworks. But with so many disincentives, regional financing for the museum only puts a fresh coat of paint on a decaying façade.
The cultural heritage we treasure must find its way to more appreciative and interested audiences. Otherwise, the preservation and promotion of art appreciation will lose by default its quest for more dollars and its desperate race against time.