Teaching Teachout on the DIA Deception

Though I’m a huge fan of both The Wall Street Journal and its esteemed drama critic Terry Teachout, the Aug. 17 edition featured a story more befitting a propaganda piece than real journalism. According to Teachout, property millages are a reasonable method for funding public arts institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Teachout buys into the DIA’s claims that it was nanoseconds away from closing its doors for lack of funds, a sad state of affairs abated by passage of a 0.2 millage passed Aug. 7 in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Such a measure, Teachout concludes, is necessary for the preservation of fine arts in Detroit, specifically, and the United States in general.

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Had Teachout performed a bit of digging, he might have discovered the DIA currently holds $175 million in funds. True, some of those funds are restricted, but at least $75 million could easily have been unrestricted by the DIA Board of Directors if needed to keep the doors open.

Further, the DIA employed $2 million of monies it claimed it didn’t have for its millage campaign. The gamble paid off, but one wonders how many fundraisers could have been hired to raise the $230 million the millage is projected to bring in over the next 10 years. These monies will be used ostensibly to fund an endowment that, remarkably, the DIA hadn’t seen fit to establish since the museum’s founding 127 years ago. The neighboring Toledo Museum of Arts, for example, covers the majority of its operating costs through endowment monies, and less than 1 percent of its budget comes from tax dollars (none coerced from Toledo property owners via a millage).

Teachout accepts at face value DIA Director Graham Beal’s preposterous claims that he has left no stone unturned in reducing the museum’s budget, which somehow left untouched Beal’s $461,000 annual salary (compared to less than $110,000 earned by the director of the Louvre) and the operation of a bed-and-breakfast owned by the DIA. This last, according to the DIA’s 990 tax statements, consistently loses more than $100,000 each year. This simply does not jibe with Teachout’s assertion: “[T]he DIA showed it was serious about money by slashing every thimbleful of fat out of the budget.”

In addition, Teachout cheers the DIA’s promise of free admission for all tri-county denizens as a result of the approved millage. Fair enough, but this “free admission” doesn’t include all museum galleries, special exhibits and entrance to the Detroit Film Theater.

Teachout concludes: “No arts organization, however important it may be, is entitled to succeed. It must keep on proving its worth to the public, year after year. But Mr. Beal and his colleagues have clearly accepted the iron necessity of finding creative new ways to engage in the business of high art. As a result, they now have a shot at long-term survival — and they’ve earned it.”

Had Teachout done his homework, he would’ve discovered the DIA’s worth was never challenged nor in jeopardy in the first place. And, yes, Beal and his team indeed were creative in devising new methods to plunder taxpayer wallets, but that’s hardly something to celebrate. One-sided reporting such of his only guarantees that more and more arts institutions will follow the DIA’s deceptive strategies that perpetuate the use of public monies to fund the arts.

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