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.

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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Salvador Salort-Pons

Dr. Salvador Salort-Pons has served as director of the Detroit Institute of Arts since 2015 and has since focused on transforming it into an active and useful organization, engaging the museum’s local...

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Eugene Gargaro

Eugene A. Gargaro, Jr. is a Detroit civic and community leader and volunteer. As chairman of the Board of Directors of the DIA since 2003, Mr. Gargaro has led the museum through a period of transition...

5 replies on “How a Property Tax Helped Transform the Detroit Institute of Arts”

  1. The Detroit model is worth paying close attention to. Museums should all be free to the public and public support mandates museums pay attention to the communities they serve. Before the mill rate tax reprieve and a genius PR campaign to convince voters it was in their best interests, the museum was threatened with selling off major works from the permanent collection. Other cities, like Baltimore should take note. And if museums were fiscally responsive to tax support like the educational institutions they aspire to be, they might become just as indispensable as schools and libraries.

  2. While all well and good, property taxes unequally tax lower income people that have zero disposable income. The upper 2% have vast excess income that should have been taxed for the last 40+ years, like it was 50 or 60 years ago, when all Museums and Public Facilities were free, provided by the appropriately taxed excess income of those who have it. “Tax the rich” are three words that have been long abandoned since the Nixon Era Oil Crisis/Stagflation/Fiat-Dollar that led to the Reagan/Thatcher greed-is-good revolution of the 80’s. That deEvolution turned reality on it’s head as we now face an incrementally defunded US privatized corporate state who’s only solution is to nit-pick pennies from the poor while the 1%’s vast economic inequality, reported every year in the news, goes untaxed, loopholed, subsidized and stolen from public benefit.

    We should not be praising taxes schemes that penny pinch the poor and leave the rich unscathed. After WW2 the top tax rate was 90+% on income above today’s equivalent of $1,000,000. Anyone who cannot live on a million dollars a year has a serious sociopathic problem that only deep corrective taxation can fix. And all of society, all of humanity will breathe a deep breath of relief when we return to a new Free Public Commons.

    [Oh, and BTW, museum culture is not immune. Do you know Museums only exhibit 1% of their public art treasures at any given time? Do you not think there should be neighborhood annex galleries everywhere with some of these public treasures on display for all to enjoy, in their neighborhoods, without admission fees? This idea of scarcity and withholding of resources to inflate value, needs to end in every sector of modern culture. We want Free Culture. We want our lives free of petty-tyrant capitalism!

    1. As I understand it, the Detroit model reached beyond the city limits to apply to adjacent counties and relatively well-to-do suburbs (i.e. Bloomfield Hills) where upper and upper middle class residents can well afford a modest tax increase that they, in fact, voted to assume for themselves. What many art workers know is that their commitment to education through museums aligns perfectly with schools and libraries that are also largely tax funded. Oh, and BTW, the Met and a handful of other encyclopedic museums–including most science and history museums–only exhibit small percentages of their collections. Often, fragile objects are rotated on and off exhibit and even those that never see the light of day are preserved for scholarly research and study that are essential to every museums’ educational mission. That said, collection sharing initiatives like those implemented through the Terra Foundation and Crystal Bridges Museum offer new, privately funded paradigms for making collections accessible to wider audiences. This model, too, would benefit from enlightened tax policies leading to neighborhood “branches,” much like our libraries offer today. Does U.S. tax policy need reform? Of course. When that day comes, let us hope museums are part of the mix of cultural and educational institutions that are supported by everyone who not only pays their fair share of taxes but who care about realms of the spirit and imagination, as a Rockefeller Commission from a half-century ago once argued.

      1. Public-private-partnerships are cloaked privatization of public assets and services. When people defend the existing dysfunction of US society engineered by the greed of a capitalist elite, it merely allows the dysfunction to grow. Tax the rich. Replace dysfunctional elite controlled Parental Republic with 99% direct democracy so we can decide the policies and fundings that we want for society and a true Public Commons. That is the cure. Pandering to the 1% gets us no where. The women’s comment below makes that all the more clearer.

  3. Lol both men who authored this opinion piece are involved in serious ethical and abusive behaviors that has kept staff seriously scared to speak up because of the reported retaliatory practices from the leadership, confirmed by 2 investigations: the Whistleblower Ethics Complaint and Workplace Culture investigations. They never released the reports, and we only know because a board member leaked the audio of a verbal report where board members were ordered to not even take notes.

    You can read more here

    Within 1 year of Salvador’s leadership, staff moral dropped significantly, as noted in the 2016-2017 staff engagement surveys. Instead of establishing metrics to ensure that Salvador would improve, they stopped the staff surveys.

    So many have resigned along the way, and in the past month 10 board members resigned after seeing the embarrassing response from the institution: instead of consequences of perpetrators of abuse and failed leadership, the institution is been investing vast resources in crisis management, PR and consultant firms. Salvador now has “leadership coaching” instead of consequences.
    They have also used media influence to silence me and my colleagues about the desperate crisis at the institution. Who is paying for all of that? Are taxes being used to cover unethical and abusive behaviors?

    There are credible allegations that Gene, who has been the chairman of the board for over 17 years, has kept the board in the dark about serious staff, taxes and ethical concerns.
    E.g. Gene alone approved a loan from Salvador’s father in law (his long time friend), against Board policies.

    I am one of many who felt forced to leave after reporting abusive and retaliatory practices that mainly affect women and people of color.
    I experienced serious retaliation that led to my public resignation, which you can read here https://medium.com/@andreamontiel23?source=post_page—–9aa1c5996f35——————————–

    In this opinion piece they discuss the benefits of tax funding, but they do not address the serious concern that about 95% of tax funding are used at the discretion of the board and museum leadership. There is such lack of transparency and accountability that even Staff does not understand how the tax funding is administrated: the director is banking 6 figures while most staff has insulting salaries, particularly custodians, security, front line staff and part time staff. It is not clear how the millions in tax funding are administrated to secure that the communities get their money’s worth and receive the full benefits of their taxes.

    During the pandemic administration of staff has been a disaster for so many: at least 3 OSHA complaints were filed because of conflicting and concerning protocols. Staff moral is in an all-time low. Many went with miserable salaries that forced them to get second and third jobs to get by.

    There are also several staff that reported serious stress and retaliatory practices during the campaigns to get tax funding. Salvador has been failing to be a responsible, transparent leader along the way, with data to support that he has been particularly retaliatory against women and people of color. And Gene has protected him at the cost of staff moral and institutional prestige.

    I am one of many who quit our dram jobs because of the neglect and abuse by Gene and Salvador, both who I consider to be dangerous to the communities in Detroit because of their lack of cultural competency, lack of transparency and accountability, in a city that deserves actually qualified leadership to care for crucial cultural heritage and for millions of tax funding commuted for the next 10 years.

    DIA staff deserves better. Detroit deserves better. The peoples who’s cultural heritage are inside of the walls of the institution deserve better.

    It is embarrassing that Hyperallergic agreed to post an opinion piece by 2 men who are confirmed to be retaliatory and unethical. Gross.

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