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At the halfway point and almost $300 million into the Detroit Institute of Arts’ tax millage from residents in the tri-county area, concerned members of Detroit’s art scene are questioning whether citizens have gotten their money’s worth.
Voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties agreed to a levy – initially proposed as a 10-year, one-time tax, but then renewed in 2020 – to help bolster the museum’s budget while it funneled donation efforts to its endowment fund. Wayne County alone has collected more than $90 million from residents since 2012 through this millage.
In exchange, the museum agreed to a nearly identical service agreement with each of the counties. In Wayne County, the Wayne County Art Institute Authority (WCAIA) requires the museum to fulfill certain benefits for residents – like free admission and school trips. But some say the agreement is too vague and oversight too lax to keep the DIA engaging with the community as much as other renowned metropolitan museums.
Of Wayne County’s $92.4 million pool, about $6 million has gone to programs outlined in the service agreement, like its Inside Out art installations and Thursdays at the Museum senior program. The rest of county tax dollars has been used by the DIA at its own discretion for operational expenses. The current agreement will expire next year and can be renegotiated for the next 10 years.
What should you get for $10 million a year
Spearheading an effort for heightened accountability for the museum is Steve Panton, a Detroit resident and active member of the city’s art scene. He questions whether the authority is ensuring the DIA is returning on residents’ investment by providing a world-class experience and contributing to the city’s creative ecosystem.
“My previous job allowed me to travel a lot around the world. Everywhere I went, I went to an art institute,” said Panton, who co-founded Essay’d, a Detroit-based arts education and advocacy publication. “I became increasingly concerned that the DIA wasn’t performing at a level that was consistent with the funding that they were getting.”
Panton points to other art institutions in similarly sized cities to illustrate what he says is the DIA’s insufficient connection with the art community. The Minneapolis Institute of Art serves a smaller metropolitan population (3.7 million compared to Detroit’s 4.4 million), and generates significantly less revenue than the DIA. It maintains about the same number of employees, but displayed more than double the number of exhibits that the DIA did between 2018 through November 2022.
“The DIA has a great collection, it has a great facility, but right now it’s not doing enough programming beyond this,” he said. “In simple terms, it has virtually no programming beyond just displaying the permanent collection.”
The Detroit Free Press and Outlier Media made multiple requests to the DIA for an interview with leadership over the course of four weeks. They declined.
A DIA spokesperson instead referred to a 2021 publication by the museum’s director Salvador Salort-Pons and board chairman Eugene Gargaro. In it, Pons and Gargaro write:
“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.”
Pons and Gargaro also cite the millage as critical in allowing the museum’s endowment fund to grow from $124 million in 2016 to $305 million in 2021.
“The reality is, for $10 million a year, the people of Wayne County should get spectacular service – this is a huge amount of money – and yet they’re getting a service which is at the bottom of the heap in comparison to similar institutions in other cities,” Panton said. “The people of Wayne County deserve more.”
Halima Cassells, an interdisciplinary artist based in Detroit, said the museum could – and should – improve its relations with local artists by offering more opportunities.
“I don’t want to take anything away from them because I think it’s important that we do have a tier-one museum that elevates art from all over the world,” she said. “But Detroiters and Detroit creators and Michigan creators should also have several ways to engage. Cassells would like to see the county require the museum to include a certain amount of local art in its collections or exhibits in the next service agreement.
Alongside offering more opportunities for collaboration, Cassells said the DIA also needs to create a more welcoming space for artists.
“When you do have that much prestige, it can make it more daunting for folks to step up and come in the door and be their best because they’re already in this kind of position of like, ‘Do I belong here?’” she said.
Sparse public records, board processes
The original service agreement, crafted by the DIA’s legal team, outlines each entity’s responsibilities and benefits for residents. In the agreement, both entities have agreed to allot at least $150,000 for field trip transportation, $300,000 for community collaborations and $100,000 for senior programming.
“I think that people assume that with the millage, there is a body that is negotiating for them and looking after their interests. And the answer is, there is a body that’s supposed to be doing that, but isn’t doing that,” self-appointed watchdog Steve Panton said, adding that the new service agreement should include the framework for a participatory budgeting process.
The WCAIA meets four times a year. In each meeting, the authority reviews programming slated for the calendar year ahead and evaluates the county’s investments compared to the amounts proposed in the service agreement, and the DIA delivers reports on Wayne County admission rates and school field trips as well.
The nine-member body currently has eight positions filled with an opening for its ninth seat: Three seats are filled by the county executive and six are chosen by the Wayne County Commission. There is no formalized process to apply to sit on the authority – leaving the ninth seat empty for the foreseeable future.
Public record of the authority’s activities is sparse. The body is subject to the Open Meetings Act, meaning it should publicize meeting notices and maintain meeting minutes, but was not fulfilling these requirements until 2020.
“Our faults are errors of omission,” said Wayne County Commissioner Tim Killeen, who serves as the authority’s vice chair. Killeen emphasized that since becoming aware of the authority’s failings, he’s been working to right them.
The WCAIA is also nine years behind on audits of millage spending.
One of the current members of the WCAIA, Renata Seals, also sits on the museum’s board of directors, in apparent conflict with state law that prohibits members of art institute authorities from sitting on governing bodies for the institution they oversee.
Both state law and the WCAIA’s articles of incorporation prohibit members from participating in the governance of the art institute. The county’s service agreement, however, allows for the authority to appoint two voting members onto the museum’s board of directors.
Requests to the board to interview Seals – who is Wayne County Executive Warren Evans’ wife and who he appointed to the authority – were unanswered.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said, “The Wayne County Art Institute Authority (WCAIA) holds the right to appoint two (2) voting members to serve on the Detroit Institute of Art’s (DIA) Board of Directors… Based upon legal opinion, the WCAIA is well within its rights and law to make appointments to the DIA Board of Directors.”
When asked whether the authority would make an effort to collect public input to consider when renegotiating the service agreement, Killeen was noncommittal, saying that may be beyond the authority’s capacity.
“We got 1.8 million people in Wayne County, how are you going to figure out the best interest of the citizens of Wayne County?” he said. “Wayne County voters have said it’s in our best interest to have that museum, we want it financially healthy. And they have their own management over there.”
The museum’s service agreements are set to expire in December 2023, presenting an opportunity for renegotiation for all three counties. The Wayne County Art Institute Authority’s next meeting will be Dec. 19 at 10 a.m., for more information visit its webpage.
Miriam Marini is a breaking news reporter for the Detroit Free Press and Outlier Media. Contact Miriam at email@example.com.