The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Detroit Historical Society are asking the City Council to find more dollars for the institutions in next year’s budget to help cover the cost of facility upgrades amid a funding decrease being proposed by the Duggan administration.
Mayor Mike Duggan’s $2.6 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2024, which starts July 1, recommends a 27% decrease in operational funding for the Wright and cuts all funding for capital projects after the city allocated $2 million last year. Duggan’s budget proposal also includes a 50% cut to operational funding for the Detroit Historical Society and removes $1 million in capital funding provided in the last budget.
Wright President and CEO Neil Barclay said the organization can’t survive without additional support from the city. The museum, he said, needs help to address $25 million in maintenance needs. Barclay said $1.6 million of Duggan’s proposed subsidy would be spent on maintenance, leaving only $300,000 for programming next year.
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“To be clear, our current financial model is not sustainable, and calls into question the seriousness of the commitment to making sure that our history, and by extension our culture, is here for future generations to understand and appreciate,” Barclay said Thursday during a City Council budget hearing.
Under Duggan’s proposal, operational funding for the Wright would drop from $2.6 million to $1.9 million. The mayor’s proposal slashes operational funding for the Detroit Historical Society from $1 million to $500,000. Meanwhile, both organizations are reviving an effort to place an operating millage proposal on the ballot for voters in Southeast Michigan counties.
Barclay said support for Black cultural institutions are vital during a time when teaching African American history has become politicized.
“Attempts to erase key aspects of African American culture are well underway across the country, with many states banning the teaching of key aspects of our history in schools, books being removed from library shelves and advanced placement courses eliminating the teaching of critical aspects of our culture’s profound and indelible mark on American life,” Barclay said.
Steve Watson, deputy chief financial officer and budget director for Detroit, said the funding proposed for 2024 is consistent with what the two organizations received in the past several years. The 2023 budget allocation was an “outlier,” Watson said in a Friday email, after museums requested additional support to cover gaps in fundraising and event revenue that were strained by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watson noted that the city allocated $1.8 million in federal American Rescue Plan pandemic relief to the Wright and $1.2 million in ARPA funds to the Historical Museum last year.
Wright representatives asked the council during Thursday’s budget hearing to match last year’s $2.6 million subsidy and to increase funding for capital projects to $2 million. Representatives of the Detroit Historical Society asked for an additional $1 million for capital projects.
The Detroit Historical Society manages the Detroit Historical Museum on Woodward Avenue, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle and the Collections Resource Center at Historic Fort Wayne.
Council members did not commit to pushing for more funds, but conversations on budget allocations are just getting started. The council is expected to approve next year’s fiscal budget in early April.
Fundraising alone isn’t enough to keep the museums open, said Detroit Historical Society President and CEO Elana Rugh. Both organizations are also supporting an effort to take some of the pressure of Detroit by creating a new millage.
A bill introduced by state Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, and co-sponsored by other Detroit representatives would allow counties to establish an authority that in turn can create a ballot initiative to fund museums. The authority can ask voters to support a new tax of up to 0.4 mills across 20 years.
Leaders of the two museums told the council Thursday that the amount of funding raised by a new tax will depend on whether Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties put a question on the ballot in 2024, and whether each county seeks the maximum 0.4 mill amount. If the ballot proposal is successful, the funds would be put into an endowment to sustain operations for both organizations into the future.
“As a 100-year-old institution, it’s important that we’re here 100 years from now,” Rugh said Thursday. “(A millage) would ensure we’re able to cover all of the operating expenses for that time.”
Both institutions have mulled relying on taxpayer money to fund operations for several years. Santana’s bill hasn’t advanced from a state Senate committee since it was introduced in March. A similar bill was introduced last year by former State Sen. Marshall Bullock, who now works for the city, but it did not pass.
Council Member Scott Benson said both institutions should be supported by the region in the same way the Detroit Institute of Arts benefits from a 0.2 mill tri-county tax that was renewed in 2020.
“The City of Detroit needs to have these institutions and they need to be supported,” Benson said. “The Detroit Historical Society as well as the Charles A. Wright (Museum) deserves to have endowments that will help support these and ensure opportunities and assets are here in perpetuity.”
Council President Pro Tem James Tate said he was impressed with the programs being offered by the Detroit Historical Society.
A 2019 study identified $25 million in deferred maintenance needs for the Wright, Barclay said. This includes an overhaul of mechanical systems at the museum, repairs to passenger and freight elevators, upgrades to a theater on the first floor, and a number of other smaller projects. Barclay said the cost could rise to $30 million if funding can’t be raised in the next few years.
Barclay said it’s difficult to convince philanthropic organizations to support capital investments if the city isn’t. Soliciting donations for maintenance is also challenging, he said, because the city owns the building.
“This is the hardest money for a nonprofit to raise even in the best of times,” Barclay said. “It is something that the philanthropic community has not been very enthusiastic about supporting. We have been happy to do our part and invest dollars that we have been able to raise and ask for money for the city’s building. However, without any current support for these costs from the city, I hope you can appreciate how challenging conversations with the philanthropic community are to raise this kind of money.”
Detroit Historical Society Chief Financial Officer Matt Greenough said the museum needs $1 million to cover the cost of improvements to multiple facilities. This includes exterior repairs, a major plumbing project and security improvements to the main entrance of the Detroit Historical Museum, an LED lighting plan, electrical improvements and paint at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum and upgrades to stabilize electrical service at the Collections Resource Center.
Greenough said the Collections Resource Center, which houses a massive inventory of cultural artifacts, lost power for five days after a recent snowstorm. Frequent power outages shut down climate control machines, he said, posing a risk to preservation efforts.