Detroit Passport to the Arts closes due to budget constraints

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

After more than 12 years, Detroit Passport to the Arts, one of the Detroit area’s primary young professionals arts organizations, has closed. The Southfield-based organization made the announcement Wednesday on Facebook, saying “the past year has been hard and budget constraints have unfortunately taken their toll, leaving us with no further options.”

The organization catered to people age 45 and younger, offering discounted tickets to local arts and cultural events, as well as creating social and networking opportunities for young professionals who share a passion for the arts. DP2A offered “passports” to participants, which was a subscription to a series of local events where subscribers could collect “stamps” as they explored Detroit’s arts and culture scene. 

“Some would come religiously to events with their passports held out,” said founder Natalie Bruno.

Bruno and a group of volunteers founded DP2A in 2008 during the Great Recession when arts organizations everywhere were struggling. Bruno, who worked with Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings (DCWS) as a trumpeter and as an administrative assistant, noticed that the audiences attending their concerts were mostly older.

Detroit Passport to the Arts paired its "Hollywood in Detroit" afterparty event with the annual viewing of Oscar-nominated short films at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  “Hollywood in Detroit”  became DP2A’s signature event.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What are the barriers that we need to break down in order to make arts more accessible to younger audiences?’” she said. 

After gathering a band of volunteers and researching similar organizations throughout the country, DP2A was born. The program was almost completely volunteer-based, run by a board of eight to 20 people with administrative support from their parent organization, ArtOps, itself an organization under DCWS. 

Ted Miklas, who worked with DP2A as program manager for ArtOps, said the program was a culmination of ArtOps’ younger staff wanting to put together an organization geared toward young people to get them involved with the arts and network with each other.

“It was getting young people involved in programs such as the Detroit Symphony or going to the opera, and making that option viable for them and encouraging them to go,” he said. “It was really showing people what Detroit has to offer on the art scene.”

In its early years, DP2A offered six events per season at organizations including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Michigan Opera Theatre, the Hilberry Theatre and Eisenhower Dance Detroit, and alternated performances at DCWS and the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.

They also attended the annual viewing of Oscar-nominated short films at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which, paired with their glamorous “Hollywood in Detroit” afterparty, became DP2A’s signature event. Eventually, DP2A added smaller “excursions” to other arts venues, such as University Musical Society, Opera MODO or Detroit Repertory Theatre, which would evolve to rotate within the main lineup. Main event attendance ranged from 50-100 people, with even more coming to “Hollywood in Detroit.”

“What we tried to do is work with organizations to choose a program which was particularly accessible to those who were not very versed in arts and culture,” Bruno said. “ We wanted something really widely appealing.”

Local arts organizations were eager partners, providing discounts and sometimes free tickets to support DP2A, and occasionally tweaking their events to reach a younger audience or offering exclusive opportunities to meet with artists, she said, adding that the events were paired with a social activity at a bar or restaurant within walking distance to patronize local businesses. 

“It was a great marriage between with both smaller and larger organizations, all of whom needed a lot more people, especially in that recession,” she said.

In their first season, Bruno said they hoped to sell 100 passports, but when they sold out within a week, they had to offer another 200. Matthew Morin, who was involved from the beginning and retired from the board a few years ago, estimated that DP2A sold between 300 and 400 passports annually for the first four years. 

But those numbers eventually dwindled. Their budget, originally around $60,000 for the first few years, decreased to about $20,000. 

“That corresponded to the group becoming even more volunteer-driven as we had less passport holders and less money to spend on staff costs,” he said. “We did still put on some really cool events, the crowds were just generally smaller.”

Miklas said the newer generation of young people was different than that of DP2A’s original audience. He said they were more spontaneous and less committal, making it harder to sell subscriptions. The program did its best to accommodate these trends, offering separate fall and spring passports, and eventually single event tickets in recent years. This proved to be a challenge for the organization, which struggled in being able to plan for event costs with the increasing number of last-minute ticket sales. 

Still, the program continued to adapt. Miklas said in its last days, DP2A was undergoing a reformation, assessing what worked in the past and seeing how best to improve moving forward. But when the pandemic hit, everything fell through. 

“In 2008 in Detroit there were not a lot of programs like DP2A, it was a very, very new thing,” Miklas said. “Over the years Detroit has grown, and that’s a great thing. But there are so many programs like DP2A that are for free, and things got harder. When COVID hit, and the essence of what the program is about can no longer be carried out, it just didn’t make sense to continue.”

Since the program was volunteer-based, Miklas said there were no job losses or financial hardships. Bruno, however, who eventually became CEO of DCWS, said DP2A was also a staff development program for its parent organizations, providing younger staff and board members leadership opportunities. 

Throughout the program’s duration, Morin estimated nearly 15,000 people attended DP2A events, and it’s something he’s proud of.

“It gave people a chance to see and try a variety of things, and it was really successful at getting people into those venues,” he said. “For people who were pretty engaged in the cultural scene, it was a chance to be with their friends and get discounted tickets to see things they wanted to see.”

While Morin doesn’t see DP2A returning, even after the pandemic ends, he said there is still a need out there for a program like this one, but perhaps less structured than the original model.

“It’s OK for things to change and go away. What is needed at one point is not necessarily what is needed in the future,” he said. “This was created because a bunch of people cared enough do it. It’s OK that it’s ended, but it’d be great to see the next generation come together and do it to make version 2.0.”