The Aug. 7 vote follows last year's shuttering of the nearby Detroit Science Center after the educational attraction's appeal for a cash infusion fell flat and comes as museums around the country learn to survive without support from state or local government budgets.
The Detroit Institute of Arts is asking voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to approve a 10-year tax that works out to $20 per year on a home worth $200,000. It would raise an estimated $23 million a year, nearly as much as the museum's current annual operating budget.
"The DIA will have the kind of financial stability it hasn't had for 40 years," said Graham W. J. Beal, the museum's director.
The museum would get a decade to focus fundraising efforts on building its endowment, Beal said, with the long-term goal of becoming financially independent. If the proposal fails, however, he said the museum would be forced to cut its hours, opening only two or three days a week. Some galleries would close to the public, and the museum would no longer have special exhibitions that routinely draw big crowds.
The museum has appealed to voters using TV ads and yard signs, as well as a busy spring and summer of events.
The request has drawn some resistance, including from state Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, who said the museum isn't in as bad of financial shape at it claims. McMillian, who also opposed a successful effort by the Detroit Zoo in 2008 to get area voters to pass a similar tax, said the art museum should spend money from its endowment and raise more money from donors instead of seeking taxpayer backing.
"It's typical when somebody wants a tax increases to cry that sky is falling," McMillin, a certified public account, said this week.
Others, however, have come out in support of the 0.2-mill tax. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who oversees the state's most prosperous county, likens the amount of the museum's request to the price of "a bad day at Starbucks." He said the museum is among the region's premier cultural amenities.
The museum was funded by the city of Detroit until the 1970s, when state support replaced local funding. That backing has since disappeared. In 2009, the museum cut its budget from $34 million to about $25 million and shed nearly 20 percent of its employees, but it says the high cost of maintaining its facilities and protecting its collection make further cuts unworkable.
The lack of city or state financial support for the museum is similar the financial situation of many U.S. cultural institutions, said Ford W. Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. Attendance generally is high, he said, but admission is a small portion of a museum's budget.
Ron Kagan, the Detroit Zoo's director, said falling property values in the area reduced the financial boost of its voter-approved tax, from an estimated $15 million a year to about $11 million this year. Still, he said, the money has brought crucial financial stability.
The art museum modeled its proposal after the zoo's, which made a pitch featuring animals and children warning that the zoo needed help.
"We basically felt that this regional resource and asset was something that was of great value to the community," Kagan said, reflecting on the 2008 request to voters. "We really, very explicitly put the question in front of residents: 'Is the zoo worth keeping?'"
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