DIA asks, ‘You voting?’

Voters in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties will find a proposal on the Aug. 7 ballot seeking a new tax for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The DIA is seeking 0.2 mills for 10 years to replace the financial support it used to receive from the state and the city of Detroit, which is no longer provided. If levied, it would provide free general-admission to county residents, including school field trips, and allow the DIA to focus its private fund-raising efforts on its endowment fund.

Under a 2010 state law, county boards of commissioners may form art institute authorities to support “encyclopedic” art museums which are owned by a municipality. Voters must approve any tax to support such a museum, and the law limits that tax to 0.2 mills and 20 years.

The law calls for a county to contract with a museum and create an unpaid authority board to oversee the contract. The museum must provide preferences or benefits to residents in counties that approve the tax.

When approved by the legislature in 2010, the measure received nearly unanimous support in the state Senate. In the House, support was divided largely along party lines. On May 19, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners voted 15-9 to allow voters to decide whether they wish to support “the continual viability of the DIA.”

The resolution read, in part, that “A viable, fully functioning DIA Museum is important to the business, educational and cultural fabric of Southeast Michigan, is a notable resource in the recruitment of new businesses and executives to the region and is an import business in its own right, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, employing hundreds of area residents and spending a substantial portion of its budget in the local Michigan economy.”

According to the DIA website, the museum attracts 400,000 visits per year, 19 percent of which are from Oakland County. The board of commissioners’ resolution states that every school district in the county sends students on field trips to the DIA.

The tax would raise an estimated $9.8 million from Oakland County in the first year. On a house with a taxable value of $100,000, it would cost $20 a year.

For its first century, the DIA was supported by a combination of public funds and private philanthropy. Today there is no funding from the city of Detroit or the state of Michigan. Since 2008, the museum has cut 20 percent of its staff. This year a $10 million structural deficit is forecast.

The museum currently operates under a 20-year agreement with the city of Detroit. Operations are the responsibility of a nonprofit corporation, which is run by a volunteer board of directors. That board hires the director and CEO. The city oversees the operating agreement through an appointed arts commission.

Rochester resident and business owner Diane Young said she’ll be supporting the proposal because the DIA “is such a treasure in our community and I totally believe it’s being underutilized. We need to support this institution to the fullest and expose as many children to it as possible.”

Paying the new tax doesn’t bother her, “especially if we get free admission,” she said. “I think having free admission will encourage people to go all the time. Because art is such a recharging experience.”

Former county commissioner Sue Ann Douglas of Rochester has lots of problems with the proposal.

“The ballot language never identifies what this is going to,” she said. “I think that’s just downright deceptive.”

She also takes issue with the county commission’s decision to allow the millage to be paid, even if the other counties reject it. She said in past arts-tax proposals, “We have always tied ourselves to the three counties.”

Douglas isn’t convinced that the DIA’s billion-dollar collection is protected should the city of Detroit get an emergency financial manager or go bankrupt. And she doesn’t believe the museum would close should the proposal fail.

“I think it’s a state asset. And if the state can increase its budget by billions every year, they can go back and take a look at it,” she said. “I like the DIA; don’t get me wrong. This thing is just not fair.”

DIA Director Graham Beal, in his May letter to museum members, said the collection will not be sold.

“DIA Inc. has complete discretion on how to run the museum as long as it adheres to ‘accepted professional practices.’ Such practices only allow for the sale of art if the proceeds are used to buy more art for the collection. As long as the agreement is in force, no entity can come in and sell art to settle bills. And, to be sure, even though there are other legal possibilities, there are considerations that lead me, personally, to say an ungrammatical ‘Ain’t Gonna Happen!’”

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