Why Arts Managers Short of Cash Are Looking At Detroit
The Wall Street Journal
When it comes to the fine arts, things are really, really rough all over. Yet another major regional orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, is now publicly grappling with a debt crisis (it's nearly $20 million in the hole) exacerbated by high labor costs that threaten the ensemble's existence. The situation, says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is "increasingly dire." Meanwhile, a growing number of much-admired performing groups, including Palm Beach's Florida Stage, have been forced to shut down permanently, while others, most notably the New York City Opera, have chosen instead to gut their operations to the point of unrecognizability.
That's why everybody in the art world is now talking about the Detroit Institute of Arts, a world-class institution that just came within inches of closing. Instead, it's now more financially stable than at any time in the past quarter-century.
The DIA, as Judith H. Dobrzynski recently reported in the Journal, no longer receives public funding from the city of Detroit or the state of Michigan, both of which have been hit brutally hard by the current economic downturn. Because the museum's operating endowment is so small, more than half of its operating expenses are directly funded by its donors—a model that, as Ms. Dobrzynski wrote, "is simply not sustainable." DIA director Graham Beal responded by hacking away at the museum's budget and raising enough money to retire its current debt. But he knew that the DIA was doing no better than running in place, and that the fiscal road ahead would soon grow sharply steeper.
What to do? Mr. Beal went to the voters, asking the residents of Michigan's Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties to pass a modest 10-year-long dedicated property-tax increase known as a "millage." It would supply up to $23 million in public funding each year for the next decade—91% of the DIA's annual operating budget—thus buying time for Mr. Beal and his colleagues to build up the museum's operating endowment to the point where it can bring in sufficient income to pay the bills.
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