New $100M arts, culture initiative creates partial safety net for local organizations
Calling it a "safety net" for Metro Detroit's largest museums and cultural institutions, the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation on Thursday unveiled an ambitious $100 million arts and culture initiative.
The initiative calls for donating $60 million over the next decade to fund a new endowment that will permanently support the operating expenses of 11 of southeast Michigan's biggest museums and cultural organizations. To give these organizations immediate support, especially as many are still struggling during the pandemic, the foundation also will dole out annual payments over the next nine years totally $3.75 million while the endowment grows.
The foundation — funded by the fortune of Detroit native Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., the former owner of the Buffalo Bills — unveiled a similar $100 million initiative Thursday in western New York, where it also does extensive work.
"Two hundred million in one fell swoop is unheard of," said Mariam Noland, president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, which will oversee the new endowment. "It's forever. And it's permanent."
In a rare meeting of the region's top cultural leaders, the presidents and CEOs of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Michigan Opera Theatre, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Henry Ford, Motown Museum and others gathered at a press conference Thursday morning in Detroit to announce the new initiative. Many commented on how grateful they are that the funding can be put towards operating expenses, which is uncommon. Donations made by large foundations or other big donors are often earmarked for specific uses.
"We see this as an amazing affirmation of what we've already known -- the arts are a major economic driver worthy of investment," said Omari Rush, executive director of CultureSource, a Metro Detroit association that works with cultural groups across the region, who noted that arts and culture contributes $15 billion annually to Michigan's economy. But these groups "need flexibility to innovate, or meet urgent needs. Or even more, seize opportunities."
The new initiative comes as cultural institutions and museums across Metro Detroit have faced daunting challenges amid COVID-19. Some say they're still struggling to get tentative patrons back through their doors and ticket sales are lagging.
The idea to create a local endowment to support arts groups dates back as early as 2017, said David Egner, president and CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. Egner said they'd heard "for years" that groups needed funds for operating expenses. Still, the board was thinking about larger capital projects it could support until COVID hit.
"What they (the board) told us after the pandemic hit is 'we've got to look at operations,' said Egner.
It was the foundation board's chair, Eugene Driker, who said the foundation not only needed to do more than capital projects for arts organizations but that they needed to double their initial planned investment from $50 million to $100 million.
"We all knew there was an issue (with operating expenses for cultural groups) but the question after watching the PPE loans and watching the start up issues that were emerging (after last spring's lockdown) was 'How do we put the gifts out to help them restart and be sustainable?'" said Egner.
The annual payments to Metro Detroit's 11 largest cultural institutions will range in size from $100,000 to $700,000.
For an institution such as the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, which will get a $100,000 annual payment from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation for the next nine years and then draw funds from the endowment, getting money for general operating expenses has always been struggle, said Diana Abouali, the museum's director. And cultural organizations of color have historically been underfunded, she said.
“What this does, this allows us to pay the basic costs of running an organization which frees us from that burden of finding money to pay the bills, utility bills," said Abouali. "It allows us the freedom to do what we do best, which is putting on exhibits or putting on public programming or expanding our archive and fulfilling our vision."
Still, Egner acknowledges the new initiative and the annual payments these groups will receive -- an additional $500,000 also will be available every year for which other local, smaller cultural groups can apply for grants -- is "drop in the bucket."
"Their budgets are huge," he said.
Eight of the 11 institutions that will receive support under the new initiative have their own endowments but they're "woefully underfunded," said Driker.
Still, it's about creating "a permanent safety net," said Driker. "...As Ralph would say, 'This is a game-changer.'"
Candice Williams contributed to this report.