Art saves Detroit?

by Jini Stolk

Having just finished Toronto Arts Facts, which provides strong evidence of the value and benefits of the arts to our City, I was still stunned to discover the extent to which Detroit’s survival could be tied to its major arts institution.

The always insightful Rick Cohen describes in the Nonprofit Quarterly how a coalition of corporate and private foundations have committed $366 million to Detroit’s underfunded and endangered municipal employee pension funds, in a “Grand Bargain” that will convert the Detroit Institute of Arts into an independent nonprofit, thereby saving its art from being sold to cover the City’s debts and protecting the collection for the

public good, in perpetuity.

Detroit was, of course, a place where enormous wealth and masterpieces of art were accumulated thanks to the auto industry, but the list of foundation support for the Grand Bargain is still surprising and very impressive. “This is an absolutely unprecedented series of…commitments from the foundation community” we are told, “stretching the boundaries of what foundations might have ever considered doing anywhere.” No kidding.

Commentators have noted that this sort of social/arts/community building initiative could only have been constructed around an organization of the size and stature of Detroit’s famed Institute of the Arts, with its huge base of board wealth and influence. And I am hoping that the Grand Bargain will allow Detroit to honour its commitments to the many nonprofit agencies who were contracted in recent years to provide services including homeless programs, supportive housing, substance abuse treatment, domestic violence prevention, services for persons with disabilities, and employment training.

This type of benefit of the arts was not what we had in mind when compiling Toronto Arts Facts, but…I will add it to my list.

Note: The U.S. budget for FY 2014 was as hard to pass as one would expect. The budget resolutions put forward by the House of Representatives, in particular, proposed deep cuts to discretionary spending, major changes to tax reform that would dramatically lower marginal and corporate tax rates – and for the third year in a row took aim at federal cultural funding:

“Federal subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting can no longer be justified. The activities and content funded by these agencies go beyond the core mission of the federal government, and they are generally enjoyed by people of higher-income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.”

Or as I guess this would now have to be rephrased, sometimes these subsidies result in a wealth transfer from wealthier to poorer citizens, propelling some wealthy citizens to examine what they most value and its relation to the larger well-being of society and its citizens…

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