For art's sake
Why the tiny millage to support the DIA makes sense for us all
Published: July 25, 2012
A few of the DIA's top honchos paid a visit to the world headquarters of the Metro Times last week, looking to gin up support for a proposed millage set to go before voters in the tri-county area on Aug. 7.
What the Detroit Institute of Arts seeks is this: The approval of voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to levy a .2 of a mill property tax that will be used to fund operations at the world-class museum for the next 10 years.
That works out to $15 a year for a home with a market value of $150,000. If passed in all three counties, the millage would provide the museum with about $23 million a year in operating funds. That would allow the museum to focus its considerable fundraising abilities on beefing up its endowment.
The thinking is that, when the millage expires in 10 years, the endowment will have grown large enough to take over funding of operations.
"This would give us the kind of financial stability we haven't had since the early 1970s," museum director Graham W.J. Beal explained during his visit with us.
Seems like a reasonable plan to us.
There are, of course, people who don't agree.
One of them is state Rep. Tom McMillin, a Rochester Hills Republican who wants the DIA to dip into its endowment in order to pay its operating expenses. McMillin may be a CPA, but he's apparently clueless when it comes to understanding how you keep the doors open at a place like the DIA.
Start taking from the endowment's principal, as McMillin would have museum officials do, and before long there won't be anything left. It is like eating your seed corn. Gobble it all up, and next year you'll be starving.
What many major museums around the country do, as well as other institutions such as universities, is live off the interest generated by endowment investments, keeping the principal in tact.
Then there's opposition from the Tea Party types, as evidenced by a plea to vote against the millage posted on the Romeo Area Tea Party's website:
"Of course the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is in financial difficulty. Of course the obvious knee-jerk reaction is to appeal to the voters of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties to vote for an increase in our taxes to bail them out. Their appeal will include tugging at your heartstrings about the children who will suffer without access to this cultural treasure trove. How could anyone be heartless enough to allow the DIA to close or limit access by curtailing their hours of operation? How could anyone allow Detroit to suffer another black eye?"
Indeed. Who would want to do that? Well, they would, of course.
Their solution is to sell off works of art to keep the museum going. But that can't be done. As reported elsewhere, the museum's agreement with the city of Detroit prohibits that sort of cannibalization. It's also contrary to the practices of museums around the world.
We heard other arguments against the public funding of our art museum listening to a local sports talk radio program over the weekend. Spend public money helping to build palaces for sports teams owned by billionaires? Not a problem. But use tax dollars to support a nonprofit cultural institution? You gotta be kidding. Why should we all have to pay for something only one segment of the population uses?
The fact that they are apparently too dense to appreciate that hypocrisy speaks volumes.
Accompanying Beal on his visit to the MT were PR man Bob Berg and Eugene A. Gargaro Jr., chairman of the museum's board of directors and a former executive at Masco.
Gargaro pointed out what seems to be obvious: To be a world-class city, you need world-class cultural institutions. And it's not just Detroit that we're talking about here. It's the entire metro region.
Which is why a majority of supervisors in Wayne, Macomb and Oakland all voted to put this measure on the ballot.
Frankly, we have a hard time remaining even a little bit civil when we hear the no-tax crowd whine about having all taxpayers fund something that not everyone uses.
They miss the point, which is this: There are things that benefit us all, even if we don't use them.
(One of the great things about the proposal that's currently before us is that, if it passes, area residents will be able to get into the museum for free. And if you worry that there's some elitist barrier that keeps the masses away from art, name a better barrier-buster than eliminating a $24 admission tally for a typical family of four. But that will only apply to residents of counties where a majority of voters have approved the measure.)
Beal and Gargaro said that polling shows that there's strong support for the millage — somewhere in the 65 percent range.
That doesn't surprise us. Hell, we're only talking about a measly 15 bucks a year.
What's really shocking is that anyone at all would be raising a stink over paying such a piddling amount to help fund something as important to this region as the DIA.
News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.
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