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Should taxpayers "save" the Detroit Institute of Arts?

The Detroit Institute of Arts is going broke. 

Museum staff say to save the DIA, they need some $200 million dollars in property taxes from Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

Voters will decide the fate of the museum at the polls this Tuesday. That’s why DIA supporters held a “Save the DIA” rally in Detroit’s New Center Park this week.

As the crowd chanted slogans of support, Matthew Webb’s voice carried above the others. “The DIA to me is Detroit,” he says. Tall and slim with oversized hipster glasses, Webb has the easy confidence of an actor – which he is, with the Mosaic Youth Theater of Detroit.

He says every time they perform at the DIA, he sneaks out to wander around the exhibits.  “When people come to Detroit and they go off of the stereotype of Detroit, it’s kinda like, Detroit is a city of poverty and a city of poorness and all that stuff, but when you look at the inside of Detroit, it’s actually bigger than all of that. And the DIA is one thing that actually helped me realize what Detroit really was.”

Nobody argues whether the DIA is a cultural asset.  It’s widely seen as a surviving island of prestige for the city. But DIA diehards have a special gleam in their eyes when they talk about it, especially now the museum’s in danger of closing.

Linda Dean sits with friends in the Ancient Middle East exhibit. “I have come here, I brought my children here, when my grandchildren are a little bit bigger I’ll bring them down here, so, you know. I would be devastated if this closed.”

In the museum’s business office, Executive Vice President Annmarie Erickson does one press interview after the other. One persistent question: after a 150 million dollar renovation just a few years ago, how can the museum now need taxpayer bucks just to survive?

She says: blame the recession. “In the past five years, we have seen our government funding disappear. Currently, the DIA gets nothing at all from the state of Michigan. We saw our corporate support completely dry up and go away.”

So with donors getting weary, Erickson says taxpayers need to step up. If Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties vote yes on Tuesday, the DIA gets a property tax from those counties for 10 years.

It’ll cost about $20 bucks a year, if your home is worth $200,000 on the market. That should bring in about $230 million dollars over the next decade. But if they vote no, then Erickson says it’s curtains for the DIA as we know it.

She says their endowment would run out in about four years. “The DIA will be in great danger of closing. Immediately? No. But in the near future? Yes. We’ll look at compressing this organization into a museum that you would not recognize.”

So far, it looks like voters are on board. Almost 70% of those polled by the Detroit Free Press support the tax. But not everyone’s convinced. “I think it’s too grand for Detroit,” says Philip Movius of Oakland County. He says he loves the DIA, but with Detroit struggling, he says they have to prioritize.  “So when you’re closing school districts, what becomes the center and hubs of neighborhoods? It can’t be an overbuilt DIA. The DIA will have to move to a smaller location, or temporarily or permanently close.”

And then there’s the question: how many of the city’s cultural institutions should suburban voters step in and save? Maria Argenta lives in Redford township. She says taxes are already too high. “We’re taxed out!” Asked if she’d miss the DIA, she says it’s never been a part of her life. “Not myself. Like I said, it might be important to a lot of people, but for myself, I’ve never even been there.”

That’s why DIA supporters aren’t taking any chances. They’re ramping up the ad campaign and get out the efforts at this week’s rally.  And for Matthew Webb, the young actor in Detroit, the DIA’s crisis feels all too familiar.

He says it’s like watching the Detroit Science Center go under again.  “Yeah, it kinda hits home. ‘Cause it’s after that, it’s like, what more  can you take away from me? As a Detroit citizen, like what else do you want from me?”

The answer to that question will come on Tuesday, when voters decide whether to foot the bill for the city’s museum.

Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.