When voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties agreed to instate a property tax to support the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2012, an agreement between the museum and the three counties outlined benefits for residents, like free admission and field trips. This year, the agreement is up for negotiation, and art advocates want more than what’s being provided.

Since implementing the property tax, which voters have already renewed until 2032, Wayne County alone has collected more than $90 million for the museum — more than Macomb County’s estimated $59 million, and less than Oakland County’s $97 million. The 0.2-mill property tax was originally proposed to help bolster the museum’s budget and support its operations, allowing the DIA to funnel donation efforts to its endowment fund.

Of the $92.4 million Wayne County has pooled for the DIA, about $6 million has gone toward programs and perks for residents outlined in the service agreement. The DIA can use its discretion to spend the rest of county tax dollars on operational expenses. The standing agreement will expire in December, and a new one can be renegotiated before signing. 

We sat with Steve Panton, co-founder of Essay’d, a Detroit-based arts education and advocacy publication, and Halima Cassells, an interdisciplinary artist based in Detroit, to discuss what changes they want to see to the service agreement and how it can be achieved. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the shortfalls of the current service agreement between Wayne County and the DIA? 

Steve Panton, co-founder of Essay’d, a Detroit-based arts education and advocacy publication. Photo credit: Jeff Cancelosi

SP: If you look at the current service contract, 5% to 10% of the money goes into community benefits, the other 95-90% actually goes to the endowment — though the latter is not contractually defined. So the biggest impact of the millage is not defined in the contract and only 5% to 10% is allocated to specific community benefits, and that might have made sense in 2012 when the DIA’s finances were very precarious, but it doesn’t make sense in 2023.

There’s no framework to say what the public might want now. Are we locked into what the DIA was doing in 2012? Or is this a living document between the public and the DIA? The current service contract also does not identify long-term services and benefits. It’s like somebody saying to you, “Give me 95% of your paycheck, and I’m going to put it into an annuity for you, and you’ll get some benefits down the road.” And when you say, “What are those benefits?” It’s like, “We’ll tell you later.” That’s what the current service contract is.

One of the things we want in the new service contract is a target endowment at the end. By doing this, you are protecting the public’s funds, and you would also put in place a structure to assess what is a reasonable amount of community benefit.

One of the things you’re advocating for is for the Wayne County Art Institute Authority to collect public input before agreeing to the next service agreement. Why should Wayne County residents care about this agreement? 

Halima Cassells, an interdisciplinary artist based in Detroit. Photo credit: Bryce Detroit

HC: There are so many other things in Detroit that our money can be going towards. To me, it’s unconscionable that we just hand them money. It’s like paying for Buckingham Palace when you don’t have a roof over your head, and people are sitting here thinking that’s a good idea. There is a way that this can benefit so many people, especially young people, in the city of Detroit and Wayne County.

They (WCAIA) have a responsibility to the citizens to make sure that they’re getting quality service. 

SP: Because right now, hundreds of millions of dollars are allocated based on less research than you’ve put in when buying your cell phone. 

Benefits included in the current agreement are school trips, senior programming and community collaboration. What more would you like to see in the next agreement? And how would it impact the DIA’s overall performance?

HC: They (WCAIA) have to negotiate a contract in a way that accounts for all of the ways residents should benefit. They have to step up to the plate and really be about negotiating something that is more than just what the DIA has handed them.

SP: It could look like more exhibitions. It could look like public art. It could look like collaborations with other spaces. Typically, exhibitions are indicative of many other things, they sort of reflect other things. So typically, when you do an exhibition, the education for the schools is impacted by that, public events are impacted by that, workshops are as well. We are in favor of funding for arts and culture, we just want it to be productive, transparent and equitable.

The problem is that rather than utilize the existing art ecosystem (in Detroit), which is exceptionally strong, they’ve tried to recreate it internally. The DIA needs to get their audience numbers up, they need to get their programming to be compatible with institutions and other sectors. The quickest and most effective way to do that is to engage with talents in the community.

Another area of improvement you’ve pointed to is the DIA’s lack of involvement with the city’s art scene, and that the new service agreement should have a local content clause. Is there any concern that could affect the museum’s actual and perceived level of prestige?

SP: I don’t think it’s even a controversial statement: There’s way more talent outside of the DIA’s walls than there is inside.

HC: I think that mentality is the double-edged sword of humility. There are so many geniuses that walk around Detroit that are people’s aunties, uncles, cousins — and they’re famous in other places. There’s so much global talent, and not only talent — genre creators, people that have literally changed the global, cultural scene and that walk around Detroit and still have a day job. 

Essay’d has released an analysis of the DIA’s finances, performance and the efficacy of the county’s governance. Read it here.

Miriam (she/her) is a strong believer that journalism should hold leaders accountable and serve as a platform for marginalized groups. She can often be found at The Congregation — usually with a hot mocha in hand and finding an outlet to charge her dying laptop.