The nitty gritty: what we advocate for and why we advocate for it:

Essay’d advocates for an equitable, productive, and transparent art economy in Metropolitan Detroit, recognizing that these three issues are inter-connected.

The Detroit art economy is characterized by massive disparities of wealth and income. A 2021 study commissioned by the City of Detroit found that over 65% of artists earned less than $50k/year from their creative practice and that over 33% earned less than $10k/year. These figures likely come as no surprise to artists working in the creative gig economy. At the other end of the financial scale are the hyper-wealthy elite who serve on the boards of the city’s foundations and large cultural institutions, frequently simultaneously. This network of interconnected boards collectively makes decisions that shape the city’s nonprofit art and culture economy, which we estimate at around one third of a billion dollars per year. Somewhere in between, both financially and in terms of information flow, is the parallel network of administrators, consultants, support organizations, program officers and development officers who collectively dominate the city’s art economy to the extent that little is left for cultural producers and grass roots organizations. If this seems an exaggeration, consider that when we researched the ongoing, publicly reported philanthropic funding streams for arts and culture in Metropolitan Detroit we found that only 2% reached grassroots organizations and artists.

As a first approximation, the non-commercial sector of the Detroit art economy can be described as arts administrators earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to manage programs that distribute thousand’s of dollars to cultural producers. For example, in 2023, one of the few funding schemes open to independent cultural producers distributed a total of ~$70k to 54 “Creators of Culture” across Southeast Michigan and was administered by an organization whose Executive Director earned $140k/year. Clearly an ecosystem that values a single art administrator at twice as much as the entirety of cultural producers across seven counties is neither equitable nor productive.

The Detroit art economy is not only characterized by massive disparities of wealth and low productivity but also by a lack of transparency and a corresponding absence of checks and balances on decision makers. As a consequence, art funding programs of tens of millions of dollars are distributed based on little data, and those making the decisions are rarely called to account for their failures. For example, by far the biggest single source of art funding in Metropolitan Detroit is the DIA millage, which will eventually total over half a billion dollars of public money. In our mid-term report on the DIA millage, we found that this funding has had a dramatic impact on the DIA’s financial stability, but that the DIA performed poorly in turning this money into programming (when compared to similar institutions in the eight closest sized American metropolitan areas.) The DIA can get away with this because the bodies responsible for protecting the public’s interest in this matter, the Art Institute Authorities, have failed to implement the checks and balances to hold the DIA accountable. To be clear, the Art Institute Authorities have the mechanisms to implement these checks and balances, through the Michigan governing legislation and the Service Agreements with the DIA, but they have failed to do it, preferring instead to allow the DIA’s lawyers to write their own contracts. As a result, the contracts only account for 5-10% of the public’s money and the remainder is spent entirely at the DIA’s discretion.

You can read about our project to make the Wayne County Art Institute Authority operate transparently and hold it accountable here. It is a familiar story of those in power refusing to step down despite overwhelming evidence of their incompetence and the damage it is doing.

Since the DIA is in good financial shape but has shown itself to be weak in turning these finances into programming, further investment in the DIA is inherently unproductive. Furthermore, since the DIA is one of the two arts and culture organizations who account for almost 50% of the arts and culture not for profit sector in Metropolitan Detroit, further funding perpetuates inequitable wealth disparities. Equipped with knowledge of this nature, funders could conceivably look for more productive and equitable ways to invest their money.

Unfortunately, this rarely happens. For example, in 2022, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation invested $100M in the Southeastern Michigan arts and culture economy of which approximately $20M was for the DIA. For some context, the entire State of Michigan budget for art and culture, through MCACA, is only just over $10M, so $20M is a big deal. Overall, it is clear that with a little more transparent dialog and a commitment to a data driven approach, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation could certainly have found far more productive and equitable ways to invest this $20M.

In contrast to the above, one art sector that is clearly highly productive is mural painting. Over the last few years literally hundreds of murals have gone up around Detroit, many of them instant classics in prominent locations. Although the relationship between public art and the property market is hard to quantify, few doubt that it exists. At first sight, it seems like an unqualified success story, but dig below the surface and you start to find stories about artists being expected to work for no/low pay, large institutions that try to recreate existing infrastructure, and artists who don’t match the demographics of the communities they’re working in.

That in a nutshell is why we advocate simultaneously for a transparent, equitable, and productive art economy.