How a Property Tax Helped Transform the Detroit Institute of Arts

Over the past year, many museums and arts organizations across the country were forced to lay off and furlough hundreds of employees, and the American Association of Museum Directors estimates that up to 30% of museums in the United States will have to close due to lost revenue during the pandemic.

At the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), thanks to a unique funding model that has been in place since 2012, we have continued to fully employ our entire staff, and we expect to close the fiscal year without a budget deficit. The story of how we developed this we feel is important to share.

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In 2010, the Michigan legislature passed a bill permitting the DIA to place a property tax — called a millage here in Michigan — on an election ballot. The legislation, patterned after an earlier bill that allowed the Detroit Zoo to pursue similar funding, resulted in the passage of the DIA’s initial millage in August 2012.

Voters in the three counties surrounding the museum agreed to pay a modest annual property tax — $20 for a home valued at $200,000 — to provide approximately two-thirds of the museum’s annual operating budget, giving the DIA time to raise endowment funds for eventual financial independence.

In exchange for this investment in the museum, each county negotiated a service agreement with the DIA, outlining specific levels of benefits the museum will provide. For each county, the DIA now offers free admission to all residents, free field trips with free bus transportation to all students, free weekly programs for seniors, including free transportation for groups, and a community partnership program where we work directly with non-profits in each county to jointly create programs and events that meet their communities’ specific needs, such as art-making experiences for veterans or those experiencing homelessness.

In any given year, the DIA invests approximately $2.4 million back into these three counties to provide these required services, deepening and expanding our connection to their residents. In 2019, about 90,000 students visited the museum on field trips, up from less than 20,000 prior to the passage of the millage. That same year, we welcomed 258 senior groups and partnered with hundreds of regional non-profits. Our team of engaged and talented staff is committed to building important relationships throughout the region that allow us to deliver programs effectively and sustainably.

Providing this level of service over an expansive geographic area is not easy, but the rewards extend well beyond the financial support we receive. By being accountable to the residents of our region, we have adapted our programs, exhibitions and even our operating structure to ensure we are giving our diverse communities what they want from their museum, not what we think they should have. This evolution has gone far beyond providing the services we are required to provide through the millage. We’ve added gallery educators to our staff who work directly with teachers to make sure guided field trips align with their classroom curriculum goals. Our studio artists solicit community input and feedback on public art murals throughout the region. Our programmers, curators, and interpreters develop exhibitions and programs that not only complement our collection, but also resonate with our community by utilizing focus groups, community advisors, and visitor evaluation.

Front view of the Detroit Institute of Arts (2010)

This model of financial support has not only allowed the DIA to weather the storm of the past year, but has also given the museum the ability to reinvest in our endowment. Through robust fundraising, strong returns, and by not needing to draw from the operating endowment, it has more than doubled in the past five years, from $124 million to $305 million. The millage has provided the DIA much needed breathing room to build its endowment so that the museum will eventually become financially independent.

On March 10, 2020, just three days before COVID closed the museum for four months, we went back to voters to ask a crucial question — “Are you willing to continue investing in the DIA?” On the ballot was a 10-year renewal of the tax, providing continued funding for the museum through 2032.

Overwhelmingly, the voters in our region agreed that the return on their investment in the DIA was worth continuing to support. With more than double the “yes” votes from the original proposal in 2012, we secured an additional decade of support from our region.

The millage has transformed our museum from an often inward-looking one to one that MUST serve its community, from the third graders in the Detroit Public Schools Community District who visit the museum on free field trips, to the residents of Eastpointe, whose downtown will be enlivened by a community co-created mural that will remain for decades to come.

Focusing on serving our local diverse communities, the DIA has both transformed its culture and has achieved a sustainable business model. As the cultural institution industry in general faces an uncertain future, our millage funding model based upon responsiveness and accountability is a successful paradigm that has sustained the DIA and culturally benefitted our region and we hope will continue to enrich our region into the future.  We are grateful for the financial support from the residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties and for the opportunity to serve them in the years to come.


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