Detroit Votes to Raise Taxes to Save Cash-Strapped Museum

Image credit: Eric Wheeler, Detroit Institute of Arts

Voters in three Michigan counties have defied conventional assumptions about politics and taxes, approving a new property tax - called a millage - that will raise an estimated $23 million dollars for the cash-starved Detroit Institute of Arts.

One of the few museums in the United States to rely mostly on public funding, the DIA has been especially hard-hit by the downturn that has stricken the Motor City for the better part of 20 years. The nationwide recession that began in 2007, just as the building finished years of renovations, forced major cuts in spending.

The DIA laid off 20 percent of its staff in 2009, executive vice president and chief operating officer Annmarie Erickson told ABC News.

"It was awful," she said, "but we were already building our case. This is a great museum that's operating as leanly as possible. We had no hope of regaining of city or state funding. We needed the taxpayers to step and help."

And with the endowment yielding only enough to cover 16 percent of the museum's operating costs, the DIA decided to take their appeal to voters.

It was an unlikely case, but the institution had history on its side.

More than two decades before Henry Ford's first Model T came roaring off the assembly line, the museum first opened its doors on the city's historic Jefferson Avenue. Over time, as automakers like Ford, and eventually Chrysler and General Motors forged an American economic Goliath, the DIA grew too, expanding its collection and building a formidable reputation in the arts community.

By 1927, the museum had outgrown its original home and relocated to a larger space in midtown Detroit's Cultural Center Historic District, where it flourished, hosting frescos by artists like Diego Rivera and becoming the first public museum in the United States to purchase paintings by Van Gogh and Matisse. Detroit was booming and the DIA rode the wave, using money from its many corporate sponsors and private donors to amass more than 65,000 works spread across hundreds of collections.

But just as the museum rose up on the auto industry's spokes, it too was cast into near economic catastrophe when boom went bust, and the donations - along with its endowment - began to dry up. During the depths of a nationwide recession that began in late 2007, three of ever four Detroiters told the National Poverty Center that they knew a friend of family forced out of work.

This profound level of disruption, paired with the wider political climate, is what makes the result of the Aug. 7 vote so remarkable. Residents of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb - where it passed by just over 1,300 votes - counties approved the teax, which will be levied for for the next 10 years at an approximate cost, according to the campaign that pushed the measure, of "$15 per year for every $150,000 of a home's fair market value."

Ironically, Erickson said, it was the same broad economic dislocation that pushed the institution into existential crisis that will, it seems, ultimately save it.

"Detroit is known for cars and music. But I also think right now is a tremendous moment for young people and the arts," she said. "Areas of the city have been gentrified by young artists, making new art available to the public and sustaining key arts institutions."

A rally Aug. 3 in support of the new tax drew more than 700 local artists and supporters to the DIA's steps.

As artists, we support the DIA 100 percent," Free Art Friday Detroit's Shawn McConnell told in the days leading up to the rally and vote. "Without museums to educate and inspire, we would not be the artists we are today. We want to preserve that possibility for future generations."

Museum officials said they hope the new funding, which will be put toward staffing and day-to-day operations, will give them the space they need to begin rebuild a modest endowment that has been dwindling for more than 20 years. By the time the millage expires, the New York Times reports, they hope to put away as much as $400 million dollars.

In the meantime, residents of the three counties that voted to raise taxes for the sake of art will be offered free admission to the DIA. On display now, Vermeer's 1664 masterpiece, "Woman Holding a Balance," which has been loaned out until Sept. 2 by the National Gallery of Art in Washington.