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Timothy Burroughs: Defend the DIA

By Timothy Burroughs, Columnist
Published December 8, 2012

Art isn’t for everyone. Though this may sound like blasphemy coming from a history of art major whose mother worked for the Saint Louis Art Museum, I truly believe that some people will never find the deep connection to visual expression that many of us enjoy. This by no means allows those individuals to overlook the cultural importance of fine art, even if they only see it as a historic record of the human experience. Regardless of which category they fall into, Michigan residents in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties decided to defend the cultural heritage of Detroit and protect the arts by passing a tax millage to support the ailing Detroit Institute of Arts this August.

The DIA has faced financial struggles throughout the last decade due to hard economic times coupled with a gradual loss of state funding. Some claim that the institute’s financial model is broken. While some museums rely on a huge endowment, others depend on significant public funding. The DIA, unfortunately, has neither. Museum leaders claimed this past summer that due to a lack of funds, the institute was facing a gradual shutdown of all operations. They proposed a millage to provide $23 million to the institute while charging the average taxpayer in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties $15 a year for 10 years. To incentivize the proposal, the residents in all three counties would receive unlimited free visits to the institute. On Aug. 6, the millage passed decisively in Oakland and Wayne counties while only passing by a slim margin in Macomb County.

However, the DIA allegedly didn’t deliver. Last Thursday, a group of Macomb residents sued the institute, claiming they were denied free entrance to the “Fabergé: The Rise and Fall” special exhibit. Officials from the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, the group that filed the suit, claim the DIA has reneged on its agreement to the tri-county taxpayers. According to the Detroit Free Press, the plaintiffs are demanding that the DIA no longer collect any admission fees from those residing in Macomb County and award the plaintiffs the amount they are due for a breach of contract, along with paying court fees.

The Michigan Taxpayers Association is an organization based in Macomb County, “dedicated to stopping the state from increasing taxes from any segment of Michigan citizens.” The association was the main opposition to the DIA millage this summer. Leon Drolet, MTA chairman, stated “as homeowners receive their property tax bills with the new DIA tax, they are finding out they have been deceived.” The day after the lawsuit was filed, Annmarie Erickson, DIA executive vice president, released a statement disputing the charges, claiming “throughout the millage campaign, the DIA was clear that free admission would not apply to all DIA activities and that visitors would still need to purchase tickets to programs such as Brunch with Bach, films at the Detroit Film Theatre and special exhibits (such as the one in question).”

The MTA has already rallied many to support their cause. Opponents of this summer’s tax millage have joined in, adding that the campaign run by the DIA was misleading and dishonest. They tricked residents into supporting an unfair, unnecessary tax increase.

However, this is far from reality. Not only was the DIA explicitly clear about only general admission being covered, the MTA lawsuit is only a bitter attempt to further antagonize the institution after voters failed to bar the tax millage. The MTA claims on its website that “every dollar the government takes, that is not absolutely necessary, is theft.” This blind, absolutist mentality has led the alliance to oppose the DIA in a misguided attempt to protect taxpayers. They’ve encouraged a few residents like plaintiff, Simon Haddad to tell sob stories and give interviews about being denied free access to the DIA to gain attention and sympathy for their cause. This manipulation of the truth is drawing additional flak for DIA executives and supporters who are simply trying to protect one of Detroit’s cultural centers.

The MTA — along with many other anti-tax organizations — frequently oversimplifies issues and looks solely at the bottom line when passing judgment. It's important to not join the other extreme and blindly support proposals that require tax increases, but to consider the entire implications of an issue. If the DIA was to fail, Detroit would lose a cultural landmark that draws tourists, educates and inspires thousands of local residents. It has been the center of Detroit’s revival by sponsoring shows from local artists and documenting the city’s recovery. The Michigan Taxpayers Alliance should accept its loss from this summer, drop this petty lawsuit and move on to protecting taxpayers instead of attacking Detroit icons such as the DIA.

Timothy Burroughs can be reached at timburr@umich.edu.


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