For art’s sake, vote no

7 08 2012

First thing I’ve had time to write in a while. Now appearing, a little belatedly, at the Michigan View.

It would be a genuine surprise if the trio of Arts Authority millages — the basis of the so-called Detroit Institute of Arts tax — failed to pass tomorrow. Simply compare the number of “Vote Yes” yard signs in the front yards of high-end homes and boutique shops to the non-existent “Vote No” signs that opponents of the measure have apparently been too embarrassed to produce.

And it’s scarcely surprising that opponents have been largely mute (save for a few brave voices here at the View). The millages are so easy to support: Just vote yes, and for a few paltry dollars a year we can keep art alive in Detroit. It’s a reasonable proposition. So reasonable, in fact, that any critic must be either an art-hating philistine or a greedy elitist. In any case, an individual certainly unfit for polite, cultured company and undeserving of future dinner party invitations.

I would be unsuitable for said dinner parties. Forcing taxpayers to support cultural institutions is not only morally unjustifiable — it ignores the historical factors that led to the creation of the DIA and the decline that set the stage for its current predicament.

For historical perspective, I’ll cite an expert on the formative years of the DIA:

Like the Art Loan Exhibition of 1883, the Detroit Museum of Art was established as a wholly private institution. Although patrons undoubtedly derived personal enjoyment from the development of the arts in Detroit or sought to further the cause of art purely for art’s sake, the overall mission of the Museum was to foster an appreciation of arts and culture among members of the public. The 40 families that each donated an initial $1,000 towards the museum’s founding were, along with those who contributed greater amounts (such as James E. Scripps and U.S. Senator Thomas Palmer, who gave $50,000 and $12,000, respectively), making a sizable investment in Detroit’s nascent cultural infrastructure.

These individuals acted in the same spirit of social responsibility as the late 19th century’s better-known philanthropists, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. Like the steel baron Andrew Carnegie, who was widely recognized for his contributions to the construction of public libraries (including an impressive gift of $375,000 towards the Detroit Public Library), the entrepreneurs and industrialists who financed the Detroit Museum of Art felt that a portion of their wealth could (and perhaps should) be used to further the interest of the public.

The expert cited is, well, me.

I cared deeply enough about the formation of the Detroit Museum of Art — the DIA’s predecessor — to write a lengthy, independently researched paper on the topic. That may not make me an authority on the subject, but it demonstrates a level of understanding that most supporters of the millage cannot claim. I won’t bore you with historical minutiae, because the lesson here is fairly straightforward. The DIA exists because early Detroiters were free to produce and dispose of wealth as they saw fit. They were so successful that many had resources to devote to the arts. And this was before the birth of the automobile.

In a city where the provision of basic police protection — to say nothing of quality education — has now become a monumental struggle, art is a luxury. But art need not be an unattainable luxury. Cut the bureaucratic straightjacket around Detroit’s wealth producers, and we may once again have enough disposable income to build and support art collections, symphonies, and parks.

The rise, decline, and future rebirth of Detroit’s cultural institutions is a complicated and ongoing story. Undoing decades of economic devastation and creating an environment where art can thrive free of public trough will be a complex task. It will not be accomplished with a millage.

Yet it is far easier to put up a yard sign and pin one’s hopes for the salvation of the DIA on a simple vote than it is to confront the economic realities that have made arts subsidies necessary in the first place. Still, saying no to an arts tax may seem irresponsible – you might even feel a little guilty for voting the measure down. If you should have a moment of doubt when entering the voting booth, however, remember this: Commerce, not concern for the arts, underwrote the cultural flowering that was the Renaissance. Michelangelo could not have survived without the Medicis.

Why should we think it will be any different in Detroit?

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