Art in a Free Market


In a recent commentary on Michigan Radio, Jack Lessenberry raises some important questions about the future of the Detroit Institute of Arts. He correctly makes a case for the importance of art to a community, but assumes that because of this importance, art must be publicly funded. Rather than adopting a millage to pay for the Institute, the city should look to private artists and patrons to carry on Detroit’s artistic heritage.

Lessenberry states that the cost of the museum, distributed via a property tax millage among the citizens of Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties, will only cost a tiny amount per citizen. He overlooks, however, the argument that such a museum should be able to survive on private donations and patron support alone. The small per-person cost of the Institute does not signify that the tax is needed or justified. Assuredly, if the museum is valuable to the community, people will be willing to donate a dollar a month (or more) to keep it going strong. No one needs to be forced to pay for something that they truly value – citizens who appreciate art will give of their own accord.

Privately supported art thrives in many communities.  Not far from Detroit, the Toledo Museum of Art receives only private funding.  This museum, founded in 1901, now houses over 30,000 works of art, ranging from ancient Egyptian to contemporary American.  Farther afield, many other American art museums and institutes are supported by private philanthropy without need for government assistance, including the Getty Museum in California. Established through a charitable trust, the Getty collection includes over 40,000 works from Ancient Greece and Italy alone.  These and other examples prove that an absence of public art subsidies need not cause an absence of art.

While some Detroit citizens will donate to the Art Institute, others will be free to choose different projects within the community to support, perhaps giving to churches, food pantries, or other organizations which also improve life for Detroit’s residents. Is the Institute so important that government must forcibly take money from citizens to keep it open, thereby limiting the amount those citizens have to give charitably and pay for their own needs?

The commentary also states that, “If you rent, voting for the millage costs you nothing.” This statement implies that renting residents can, essentially, get a free benefit. In fact, increased property taxes will reduce the profits of landlords, who may in turn pass the cost on to their tenants through increased rent. There is no such thing as a tax which costs a community nothing.

Detroit’s art is indeed a valuable piece of the city’s heritage and cultural contribution, but this does not mean that citizens must pay taxes for it. Rather, we should look to private generosity: individual citizens donating their own money will take care that the funds are put to good use for the community as a whole, not just for some.

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