Detroit Wright and Historical museums to seek millage in 2 counties

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Two historical museums in Detroit are pursuing placing an operating millage proposal on the August ballot in Wayne and Oakland counties, officials confirmed Wednesday.

The plans for the Detroit Historical Museum and Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History come after a bill introduced in the Michigan Senate last year that would create an authority that could seek up to 0.4 mills for up to 20 years to aid the institutions, said Elana Rugh, president and CEO of the Detroit Historical Society.

“We have an agreement between our institutions that splits the millage proceeds 60/40 with 40 percent to the DHS,” she told The Detroit News in an email. “This is based on the difference in our overall budget size.

“Based on the numbers of museum visitors and members of both institutions, and the current state of the legislature, we are not planning on taking the millage to Macomb County.”

Museum officials estimated the Wright would receive $22 million to $24 million each year through a 0.4 millage, while the Detroit Historical Museum would receive about $17 million.

The funds would be "critical" in allowing the museums to remain viable after tough times during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Neil Barclay, President and CEO at The Wright.

"We’ve been in a challenging situation for a while," he said.

President and CEO Elana Rugh of the Detroit Historical Society stands beside the Automotive Showcase display at the Detroit Historical Museum.The society's board has approved a plan aimed at securing a dedicated revenue stream for at least the next decade.

Both institutions had previously floated turning to taxpayers for money to stay afloat in 2019.

That year, the Detroit Historical Society’s board approved a resolution authorizing Rugh to seek securing a dedicated revenue stream for the museums it operates, the Detroit Historical Museum and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle, for at least a decade.

Also in 2019, the Detroit Historical Museum reinstated an entrance charge after losing $297,000 the year before.

According to its most recent financial report, the site had about $2.6 million in revenue for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Nearly $2 million derived from contributions.

Rugh said the society cares for a city collection of nearly 300,000 artifacts. 

“The Society has been underfunded for years and the pandemic has only made our predicament more acute,” she said. “The Historical Society was founded 100 years ago this past December, and it is imperative that we are able to continue telling Detroit’s stories into our second century. We are the keepers of the Detroit region’s stories and we know that our community is one of the most philanthropic in the country. We also know that we live in an area that treasures its cultural institutions. We have to do what ever we can to ensure that these important museums are able to educate our children and our children’s children — for at least the next 100 years.” 

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit on Dec. 1, 2021.   The museum is one of 11 cultural institutions that will benefit from a new arts and cultural initiative and endowment from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation.

The Wright museum, which boasts a 125,000 square-foot space that opened nearly 25 years ago and houses more than 35,000 artifacts, has sought extensive repairs after historic flooding in June left significant damage.

The museum has an annual budget of about $7.2 million, about $1.9 million of which comes from Detroit's general fund. Its most recent financial report showed contributions provided more than $1.4 million of its $6.3 million in revenue.

Barclay estimated the museum welcomed nearly 200,000 visitors each year through its exhibits, events, programming and gatherings before the pandemic. Now, he said, “attendance is down at least by half and sometimes significantly more.”

Staff was cut while operating hours were scaled back in 2020. Besides the flooding recovery, museum officials still plan other capital improvement projects. They’ve still found contributions and outside aid, but a millage would be a windfall, Barclay said. “Having a way to build endowment to get our buildings maintained ... is really critically important and it would really help us to provide more services.”

State Sen. Marshall Bullock, D-Detroit, introduced the bill creating an authority for the historical museums in September, legislature records show. It has been referred to the Committee on Economic and Small Business Development. 

Bullock did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

“The Senate is back in session next week and we are hopeful we will receive a positive vote then,” Rugh said Wednesday.

If it passes the state House, she added, “we anticipate it would be signed by the Governor by the end of March.”

Staff Writer Maureen Feighan contributed to this report.