Detroit Historical Society, Wright museum weigh going to voters for tax

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Worsening cash crunches are prompting two of the city's iconic cultural institutions to consider turning to taxpayers for money to keep them afloat.

The Detroit Historical Society and Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History expect to jointly hire a consultant early next year to explore a first-time tax proposal that could go before Wayne County voters as soon as 2020, said Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society executive director and CEO. Both have struggled for years to keep up with basic operating costs.

The potential millage comes amid competing asks for yet more fundraising — a new tax plan to fund regional transit, a March proposal by the Detroit Institute of Arts to renew its 10-year regional millage, and a $50 million fundraising campaign for the Motown Museum. The Detroit Zoo three years ago won backing from 75% of voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to renew its millage, two years ahead of schedule.

The historical society operates the historical museum at Woodward and Kirby and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle. The society's board last month approved a resolution authorizing Rugh to move toward securing a dedicated revenue stream for the museums for at least the next decade. 

Officials, she said, may seek out a 10-year tax in Wayne County of 0.2 mills, an initiative that mirrors what has been levied and is under consideration for renewal for the Detroit Institute of Arts. A 0.2-mill tax would generate about $8 million a year from Wayne County, Rugh said. 

"We feel that there's enough space, there's enough room and goodwill in Detroit, to support all of our important cultural institutions," Rugh said. It would cost the owner of a $100,000 house roughly $10 per year.

The society and Wright have turned their focus to the concept as they continue to press for more dollars from Detroit's general fund and pursue other avenues to bolster funding.

The Detroit Historical Museum on Nov. 1 reinstated an entrance charge to help reduce its budget deficit. The society, with an operating budget of about $4.8 million, lost $297,000 last year and expects to lose $500,000 this year.

Residents of Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck are eligible for free memberships.

President and CEO Elana Rugh of the Detroit Historical Society stands beside the Automotive Showcase display at the Detroit Historical Museum.

But the move to revive an admissions fee is not significant enough, said Rugh, who has led the historical society since 2018. The society has just about two years left of its reserve funds. Once those are gone, it could mean reduced hours and staff. 

"I realized early on, even if we really shored all of these additional revenue streams, it still wouldn't bring us to the point of being solvent," Rugh said. "We really need a significant game-changer because currently, we are really raising funds for operations."

Neil Barclay, CEO of the Wright museum, stressed that discussions are preliminary, but said he would be "very supportive" of a joint millage effort if and when it makes sense. The initial phase will be engaging Wayne County's executive and its county commission chair as well as Detroit administration and City Council president. 

"It's important for each one of them to agree that this is the best way to solve this issue before we move forward in earnest," he said. The boards of both museums would have to sign off on such a proposal for it to advance.

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History President and CEO Neil Barclay is seen among exquisitely crafted memorial poles created by Aboriginal artists from Australia in an exhibit 'The Inside World," Dec. 17, 2019.

Alisha Bell, D-Detroit, who chairs the Wayne County Commission, said in a statement that the 2021 election might be an opportune time for a potential tax proposal since it would appear on the ballot alongside the race for Detroit's mayor and City Council.

"Providing funds to keep these institutions open and vibrant is something I fully support," she said. "But we will still have to explore all of our options to look at the best way to do this, and a millage may be one.” 

Alexis Wiley, chief of staff to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, said the city administration has no position on a potential millage but is "supportive of the institutions" and wants "to learn more on how we can be helpful."

The Wright has an annual budget of about $7.2 million, about $1.9 million of which comes from Detroit's general fund. The museum is spending $1.2 million just to run the city-owned building, and it doesn't have any reserves, Barclay added.

Additional funding, he said, would maintain the museum's educational and literacy work, public programming and exhibitions. 

A display on the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, is in the Kid Rock Music Lab at the  Detroit Historical Museum.

Detroit resident LaShanta Reese just visited the Detroit Historical Museum with her 9-year-old grandson and was amazed with how much the third grader learned. She's also a supporter of the Wright museum. 

"I would like to see that on the ballot," said Reese, 48. "It's definitely worth it."

A Ford Foundation study in 2007 concluded that the Wright museum needed $2 million to $3 million more per year to operate, Barclay said. More than a decade later, funding is stagnant.

"We're definitely underfunded, and what it does is it puts some constraint on what we can do, how much we can do and how we can respond to the needs of the community in terms of what they think the institution should do," he said.

"You dovetail that with the notion that the Wright is kind of the model that a lot of African American museums have used to structure their own operations. When we're struggling, it's emblematic of the whole field trying to figure out a way of 'how is this actually going to work,' and how are these institutions going to be sustained long term."

Nationally, 29% of museums polled in a 2017 survey reported they had dipped into reserves or endowment funds to cover operating costs, according to a study commissioned by the American Alliance of Museums.

"Ever since, or maybe even before the last recession over a decade ago, we've seen a lot of museums having financial challenges," said Laura Lott, president and CEO of the Washington D.C.-based alliance. "They are extremely undercapitalized."

Despite that, a national public opinion poll conducted in 2017 by the alliance found 96% of respondents supported both maintaining or increasing federal funding for museums and legislative action by elected officials to support them.

Tax proposals to fund cultural institutions aren't common, Lott said, but in areas like Grand Rapids and St. Louis, they have been successful. 

Rugh said $500,000 annually, or just less than 10% of the historical society's budget, is provided by the city. It costs $1.3 million just for basic operations. 

"I'm 100% certain that we need a new option for funding that currently isn't available to us, and this seems to be the best option," Rugh said. "We're at the point now of discovering how to go about that, how much it's going to cost, and the best way to do it."

Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson has pushed for years to have more resources dedicated to the two institutions. Appointed to the Wright museum's board this fall, he said his most recent conversations were prompted by a review of the museum's budget and "how inadequate it was."

The DIA, he said, has regional support from taxpayers and enjoys success in the city’s arts center. 

"While I support the DIA personally, I am concerned that that institution has been so successful in the arts center that level of success is not translated to success for our museums: the Charles H. Wright and the Detroit Historical Society, because our story deserves to be told also," he said. 

Benson recently asked the council's legal staff to draft a report on the process for placing a millage on the Wayne County ballot. Wayne County Commissioners can place a proposed tax millage increase on the ballot by a two-thirds vote. If 60% of the electorate support it, the measure would be adopted.

A familiar Little Caesars Pizza character towers over the display in the Allesee Gallery of Culture at the Detroit Historical Museum.

Benson said the millage would have to be "responsible" to citizens eligible to vote and provide enough financial support for both institutions.

"I'm very optimistic we will figure out a way to provide a dedicated revenue stream to both those entities," he said. "This deserves very critical, strategic planning to ensure success if and when we go to voters."

Amado Britton, who lives on the city's west side, said he's already feeling overtaxed.

"It's too many things accumulating," he said. "Everyone wants a big piece of everyone."

Benson said he recognizes the region and city of Detroit already are "heavily taxed" and "adding additional taxes is not a decision that we take lightly."

Benson said both boards have received the idea of a millage positively. The concept, he said, remains in the research phase, and there's been no formal proposal or action.

"My main concern is, I don't want to have either the Charles H. Wright Museum or the Detroit Historical Society or any of our cultural gems be lost due to a lack of revenue," he said.