Commentary
12:10 pm
Mon July 16, 2012

Funding the Arts

I have been a member of the Detroit Institute of Arts for many years, and I have to confess that I don’t go nearly often enough. A couple times a year, maybe, and more often to its courtyard, a wonderful place for lunch if you are in the city.

Yet even when I can’t get to the museum, I am always happy to know it is there. Detroit and Michigan have seen more prosperous days. But it is nice to know that this city and state are still home to one of the nation’s top six comprehensive fine arts museums.

Having that quality continue, however, depends on the outcome of a small millage request on the primary ballot in just the three core Detroit-area metropolitan counties - Wayne, Oakland and Macomb.  Voters will be asked to approve two-tenths of a mill for the DIA for the next decade.

Translated into dollars, that means that if you own a house worth one hundred and twenty thousand, the DIA will cost you a dollar a month. If you rent, voting for the millage costs you nothing.

If the millage passes in all three counties, it should mean about twenty-three million a year for the DIA, depending on what happens with housing values. It will mean the museum will be able to continue to do the same quality exhibitions it has been doing.

Plus, citizens of any counties that approve the millage will get in free, and the art institute will stay open more hours and days.

I was assured of all that by Annmarie Erickson, the museum’s chief operating officer. She is cautiously optimistic that this time the millage will pass. What if only one of two of the three counties approve? Well, Macomb has a provision that its citizens will only have to pay if the other two counties also approve the millage.

If voters in either Wayne or Oakland County approve, however, the millage would be collected there. Those who support the DIA are cautiously optimistic, even though voters turned arts funding down twice about a decade ago. Those elections proposed appropriating money for an assortment of agencies; this one is for the DIA alone.

There are a number of misconceptions around. One is that the museum already gets city and state money. It used to; it doesn’t anymore. Another is that it is an exclusively a Detroit-area institution. But the DIA currently has art out on long-term loan to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, and often makes its treasures available elsewhere. DIA experts have assisted and advised museums across Michigan.

Some have complained that the public shouldn’t have to pay for art. But is like saying public education should only be for the rich. One legislator suggested the museum should spend its endowment, and some have even suggested the DIA sell its art work to keep going. Those would be short paths to institutional suicide.

The value of public treasures is hard to quantify, mainly because it is beyond value. Metropolitan Detroit may not be as rich as it once was, but that’s no reason our public spaces should look like North Korea’s. We still have a world-class art museum.
 If that isn’t worth a dollar a month, I don’t know what is.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst.  Views expressed by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.