The Woodward Entrance at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (Courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts)

It seemed incredible, almost surreal, when the news emerged in August: The Detroit Institute of Arts had persuaded voters in three counties to approve a 10-year levy of $10 on every $100,000 worth of property value. The $23 million annual windfall guarantees the financially strapped museum a decade more life, time enough, its leaders hope, to build an endowment and restructure a financial model that was once heavily dependent on government support.

Passing a property tax increase is hard enough. Passing one to support an art museum is something of a miracle.

Graham W.J. Beal, director of the DIA, looks at the successful campaign as a referendum on changes the museum has made. One of the finest art museums in the country, the Institute of Arts was built with the largesse of Detroit’s auto barons and was for years supported by city or state funding, which has since disappeared. When it finished a $158 million renovation in 2007, it reopened with a much more populist face.

“It turned the DIA from a traditional, elitist institution that was basically for specialists into a museum that people believed — and our focus groups showed — was an institution that belonged to them,” says Beal.

And it remains a controversial makeover within the art world. Art is now presented with a focus on themes such as “eating” and “dressing” and “going on vacation.” Labels are simpler. Which has inspired muttering about “dumbing down.” Beal says: Nonsense.

No matter why Detroit voters agreed to keep their museum alive, it could be a watershed moment. Is the usual thinking about the arts and public funding wrong? Can a case be made for public support of cultural institutions even given an economic downturn and the perennial anti-tax sentiment of a substantial portion of the electorate?

Beal describes a nuts-and-bolts campaign by the tax measure’s backers. First, they had to secure approval for the referendum from the state Legislature. Then they reached out to sympathetic leaders in the three counties and the business community, (which was strongly supportive, according to Beal). Advertising stressed the danger that the museum might have to cut exhibitions and opening hours and its educational role.

“We emphasized that we were about family, and children, and we were about legacy,” says Beal.

Since the tax measure passed, there has been substantial debate about its impact on the larger museum and arts world. Has a precedent been set? Or is Detroit, a city that built world-class cultural organizations yet suffers from world-class urban decay, a unique case?

Minneapolis and St. Louis have similar support structures for some cultural institutions, although not all types of institutions benefit equally. Zoos tend to secure public support; opera companies and orchestras, often perceived as more elitist, struggle for inclusion in regional cultural taxes. Art museums seem to fall in the middle.

Beal hopes that the good news for the DIA will at least start a conversation about arts funding at the state level. With the National Endowment for the Arts savaged by political controversy in the 1980s and ’90s, and attenuated by budget cuts since then, the importance of state arts funding has increased. But states, including Michigan, have also cut their arts funding (annual state support for the DIA went from $16 million to zero in 20 years).

It may be too early to persuade the electorate that it’s time to reconsider the blessings of government support for the arts. But perhaps the yes vote in Detroit can start that conversation at the state level. Then, who knows? In Europe, the arts are a regular part of government budgets, and the results show.