It’s hard to fully comprehend the challenges facing Detroit as it begins the process of recreating the city post-bankruptcy. Tough decisions and cuts will be made, but for Detroit to retain its identity, the gems and icons of the city must act as a foundation for the rebuilding process.
One of these pillars is the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA, like too many public institutions, has a history of financial struggles. However, it was given new life with the passing of a tax increase in 2012 to help cover operation costs. Less than a year later, the DIA is now being forced to combat rumors surrounding the potential sale of part of the museum’s collection in order to cover some of the city’s $18-million debt.
The DIA was allowed only a few months to relax following the passage of the tax millage last August. The millage stabilized the DIA’s finances for the first time in years by raising the property tax for Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, whose residents now have free admission to the museum. Though the campaign for the new tax encountered stark opposition and continues to face criticism, the museum is now able to function without the aid of state funding. The DIA has in place a long-term plan to remain a Detroit icon and tourist attraction.
This recent success, however, could fall apart rapidly. Following the city’s declaration of bankruptcy this summer, Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr began the process of valuing the DIA collection by famed auction house Christie’s, sparking rumors of a sale.
While Orr claims that the appraisal is simply part of the process of establishing the value of all city assets for creditors, he also said all options were on the table in his disposition. Either way, July has caused an uproar in the art community.
DIA Director Graham Beal responded to Orr hiring Christie’s by adamantly stating the DIA has “no intention of breaking the fundamental tenet of the art museum world.” He added that the sale of any work for the purpose of repaying city debt would jeopardize the annual $23-million tax millage. Beal also alluded to the very real possibility that a sale would ruin the credibility of the DIA as a public institution and betray the people of Detroit’s trust.
Beal’s concerns are not unwarranted. Though the museum holds the collection in public trust, a 1919 agreement shows that the museum, which opened as a private institution, gave up ownership of its collection to the city in exchange for a new building owned and operated with city funding. In recent years, state funding has completely disappeared while in the 2013 fiscal year, the DIA received no funding from the City of Detroit towards their $31 million unrestricted operating budget.
The city’s new financial situation and lack of support of the DIA has made this 1919 agreement somewhat obsolete. The art is owned by the taxpayers of Detroit, and their support of the tax millage illustrates intent to preserve and maintain the museum.
Regardless of the technicalities of ownership, all parties involved need to realize the global significance and local importance of the DIA. City officials need to look at the DIA and similar Detroit institutions as the face of the city and not assets to be pawned in tough times. The mere act of hiring an appraiser shows a priority toward finding a short-term solution to a long-term problem. While there is no doubt that the masterpieces at the DIA could bring in significant funds, it would do nothing to solve structural problems that caused the city’s financial issues.
The DIA has already demonstrated the importance of its role in the community and taxpayers have responded by pledging their long-term support. Instead of attempting to undermine this progress, Orr should be supporting the budget cuts, frugal spending and public support that have strengthened the DIA’s finances. By preserving an icon such as the DIA through local, sustainable support, Detroit can retain its identity and significance as it rebuilds from its financial struggles.
Timothy Burroughs can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated that city funding to the DIA has dropped to less than 1 percent. The DIA has not received funding from the city since 2012.