Detroit voters agree to hike their own property taxes -- for the arts

Studio 360

The Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts is one of the museum's more stunning spaces. (Photo courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.)

Getting residents to vote to raise their own taxes is usually pretty tough, especially in these economic times

Raising taxes to pay for the arts is beyond the pale. And in Michigan, which saw its recession start earlier, go deeper and last longer, talk of higher taxes is practically a fool's errand.

But something happened in that state earlier this month that would seem to defy logic.

On Aug. 7, residents of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties voted to raise their own property taxes a fraction of a percent, .2 mills, to help fund the Detroit Institute of Arts. A mill is $1 in property taxes for every $1,000 in assessed valuation.

The 127-year-old museum, which is home to work by Vincent Van Gogh and Diego Rivera, has struggled for years to sustain itself with diminishing government funding. In exchange for the consistent funding model, residents of the three counties, which includes the city of Detroit and its suburbs, will get free admission. According to The New York Times, the museum joins the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the St. Louis Art Museum, and a small handful of others, in receiving direct property tax support.

“We needed to change our financial model,” said Annmarie Erickson, the DIA’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.

The museum's financial difficulties are due in part to its small endowment — about $100 million — especially for an institution of its caliber. However, instead of building on its endowment, the administration has had to focus fundraising activities on simply keeping the doors open. With the estimated $23 million annually from the new property tax funds, Erickson says the DIA will get some breathing room and the chance to build its endowment.

The tax expires in ten years.

The referendum faced its hardest sell in the traditionally working-class Macomb County, where it passed with just 51 percent of the vote.

Attendance has already tripled over what it was at this time last year, Erickson says, and the referendum was undoubtedly a boost to marketing as well.

Maybe talking about taxes isn’t always political death after all.

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