Given the tumultuous decade since the new millenium, several federal and state programs have been mercilessly slashed to reduce deficits and keep the “core” programs of the government running. When public schools themselves have faced huge cuts in budget, it is not surprising that the arts and culture would face even harder times. Museums, galleries, libraries, concert halls – across the country all of them face budgetary shortfalls, unless already supported by generous endowments.
Which is why it came as a pleasant surprise that the Detroit Institute of Arts actually got voters in three Michigan counties to approve a millage tax specifically meant for the museum. This was not imposed top-down or mandated, but put on the ballot and approved after a majority of voters supported it. That makes it two counties to have done it this month. And there is one more planning to do it in November, which may not pass if the votes go the way the online poll goes.
This might still not meet the approval of folks who think that these should not be taxes but donations, or other forms of voluntary contribution towards the arts. Which is where an online poll across all counties might differ in outcome from a local ballot initiative where local voters get to decide. For example, the public libraries are an amazing resource for parents to find books, CDs and other media for their children. If they need support and had a ballot initiative, chances are that many parents would vote in favor. We are already witnessing a trend where in school districts with budgetary shortfalls, parents are fundraising to meet the difference to keep the schools well funded. While this highlights a broken tax system with funds going towards initiatives that may not be best investments for the country in the long run, these initiatives do give some pause to show how people are taking action to make a difference.
In this context, pay it forward mechanisms might also work. If each person was given free access to a museum and told that the person ahead of them had already paid for their ticket, it might actually make them donate more than they might have done if they were just asked to make a voluntary donation. People like Prof. Leif Nelson at Haas School of Business, have done some really interesting work that suggests that pay it forward or pay what you want schemes might work better than a fixed ticket price schemes under certain scenarios.
The arts and sciences have survived through centuries of varying patronage, so lets hope that despite these hiccups, they continue to receive our support, even as we support the livelihoods of those for whom survival might be a more immediate concern than the arts. There is a place for basic needs to be met for many, and at the same time, elevating the minds of future generations by exposing them to things that are beyond the mundane and the literal.