DIA seeks 10-year millage renewal despite 2012 vow

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

The Detroit Institute of Arts will seek a renewal of its 10-year millage on Wayne, Oakland and Macomb property owners in March, despite claiming in 2012 that the museum would be self-sufficient after the tax expired.

The current 0.2-mill, 10-year property tax won't lapse until 2022, but the museum has decided to act during a presidential primary, rather than wait for an off-year ballot when its prospects might be dimmer. 

Defending the decision Tuesday, DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons said, "The millage has changed the culture of this organization. In the past, the museum mostly looked inwards. Now we look outside the museum's walls. We play a much bigger educational role. We've become a tool for the community."

Visitors view Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry Murals at the DIA.

Furthermore, he added, Detroit's 2013-14 bankruptcy upended all the museum's plans. 

"In 2012, management didn't know the city of Detroit was going to go bankrupt," Salort-Pons said, "and that the museum itself would have to raise $100 million to give to the city," as part of the so-called Grand Bargain. 

The Grand Bargain raised $816 million from foundations, corporations and the DIA to compensate Detroit pensioners and protect the museum's artwork from being sold. 

"We've fundraised quite a bit in the past few years," Salort-Pons added, "but that $100 million put us behind — and doesn't allow us to go back to the same people who contributed to it during the Grand Bargain."

In moving for early renewal, the museum, with an annual operating budget of $38 million, is following the lead of the Detroit Zoo, which won a renewal of its 10-year millage in 2016 two years before its expiration.

Going in March also gives the museum two years to figure out a strategy, should the vote not go in its favor. 

Approved by the DIA board Monday, the measure must now be passed by the county arts authorities before Dec. 17 to make the March ballot. 

In 2012, DIA officials told voters and the editorial board of The Detroit News that the millage, which last year yielded about $26 million, would permit them to pour all fundraising into the museum's unrestricted endowment, so that after 2022 public support would no longer be necessary. 

Buttons in support for the 2012 Detroit Institute of Arts tri-county millage.

In 2012, the endowment stood at about $91 million. Today it's reached $232 million, still short of the $300 million the museum said at the time would be necessary to yield what the millage does.  

Today, however, Salort-Pons estimates that $600 million would be required to keep the museum functioning at its present level. 

The millage costs the owner of a house valued at $150,000 roughly $15 a year. 

Having claimed they'd ask only once, the museum faces a public-relations challenge, particularly in Macomb County, where the 2012 measure squeaked by with just 50.5% of the vote. Margins in Wayne and Oakland counties were more than 60%.

In exchange for the millage, the museum waives admission for Wayne, Macomb and Oakland residents, who also get reduced rates for ticketed special exhibitions like the "Van Gogh in America" show opening next June. 

Justifying a renewal, museum officials also point to greater outreach statewide, opening the museum six days a week rather than five, and much-expanded K-12 school programs.

"Before 2012," Salort-Pons said, "we served about 20,000 students — now, it's 75,000. In two years we hope to hit 100,000. This is important, because arts education is disappearing from the schools."

Salort-Pons makes the case that since 2012, the museum has morphed into much more of an educational resource than it was in previous years, including a partnership with Oakland County Community College, and one just inked Tuesday with Wayne County Community College. 

Reached Tuesday night, Eugene A. Gargaro, DIA board chairman, said voters were not promised the millage would be a one-time affair, but he declined to comment further, deferring to Salort-Pons. 

The Detroit Institute of Arts.

Museum administration decided to go ahead with plans for a renewal after four days of polling last month suggested it was a favorable time.

"Wayne and Oakland counties are supportive," said David Flynn, DIA senior vice-president for public and community affairs, "and we're gaining in Macomb."

Of the roughly $26 million the DIA currently gets from the millage, Oakland County puts in about $11 million, according to Salort-Pons, while Wayne contributes $9 million and Macomb $6 million.

Macomb County Commissioner Leon Drolet, who also heads the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, says he admires Salort-Pons and the DIA board, but is disappointed at the bid for renewal. 

"I understand the strategy involved in going early," he said. "If the tax is defeated, they can ask the following year and the year after that. It's a way of gaming the system. They just need to win once."

Drolet said the upcoming March primary is a popular date for a wide range of organizations that want to boost taxes, "because they anticipate that few Republicans will be voting, since (President Trump) is unlikely to be seriously challenged."

Marsha Miro, founding director and president of the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, argues the Metro area has profited from its support of the museum. 

"Over the last eight years," she said, "the DIA has enriched the cultural life of the tri-county area with outreach programs, careful educational components, and lots of exciting exhibitions for the Metro area’s vast population." 

Miro added, "The millage is a key part of that. It would be a shame to return to a beleaguered past, when the museum has proven how great and important it is to our community."

Visitors admire works of art on display at The Detroit Institute of Art. Foreground: Bronze sculpture Moods of the Evening.


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