Does the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Gift to Detroit Foreshadow Future Funding Trouble?

Detroit’s been in fiscal trouble for years due to multiple causes, including the decline of the U.S. auto industry, decades of city mismanagement, the exodus of residents, and widespread home abandonment. It’s become an unwilling, and slightly ungainly metaphor for the economic history of the last sixty years. But! It’s actually one of the most interesting places in the United States right now. 

As Brooklyn is becoming the new Manhattan, Detroit could become the new Brooklyn. We could say a lot about the burgeoning artistic scene, cultural renaissance, and music scene the city is experiencing right now (artists: it’s a really cheap place live), but Detroit’s cultural heritage is also benefiting from some big philanthropic interventions. Last year, a coalition of 10 foundations pledged around $330 million to bolster the city’s ailing pension fund— and also to protect the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, reportedly a target of unsecured creditors owed repayment of $11.5 billion after the city filed for bankruptcy.

Now comes the W.K. Kellogg Foundation with an additional pledge of $40 million, announced today. The Battle Creek-based foundation is known for its work across the globe and in the United States, but Kellogg definitely likes to work in its own back yard, listing Michigan as one of its priority places. In fact, Michigan was originally the Foundation’s sole geographic focus. According to the foundation, “It remains one of our priority places, based on our long history and deep relationships, and on the high levels of poverty and significant barriers to success for its most vulnerable children.”

Its primary focus is child development, and the need for equitable access to quality early child care, education, and health care, and Kellogg isn’t coloring too far outside the lines with this latest pledge. Art education and access are becoming road kill in the country’s focus on STEM and the pursuit of the Common Core Standards for education, and it’s falling to philanthropies to bridge the funding gap for the arts. Thanks to Kellogg and the coalition of foundations who have pledged hundreds of millions to the city, Detroit’s kids can enjoy continued access to Jann Van Eyck’s “Saint Jerome in His Study," Edgar Degas’ “Violinist and Young Woman,” and the handsome Head of Emperor Augustus. We kind of think it’s a little gross to sell historic masterpieces as part of a bankruptcy fire sale, actually.

And that's the rub: Will other cities attempt to solve their pension shortfalls with cultural appeals to philanthropic foundations? This might be setting some kind of hideous precedent. It’s not too hard to envision a scenario in which a desperate city council could attempt to take municipal cultural treasures hostage, threatening to sell them in order to cover their pension obligations unless they get a similar philanthropic bailout. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Detroit, but the mix of politics, debt, art, and philanthropy creates a cloudy picture—as cloudy a picture as Theodore Scott Dabo’s “The River Seine,”available for viewing in the Detroit Institute of Arts American Wing.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has not disclosed the number of years over which the funds will be given. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the state legislature have raised the stakes, pledging $350 million in further assistance.