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Recession forcing museums to do more with less

NEW YORK (AP) – The recession is hitting museums hard from coast to coast, forcing directors to boost admission fees, cut budgets and staff, and put ambitious projects on hold. But in a twist on the bleak economic news, museums are actually reporting an increase in attendance.

“It’s not the worst of times for museums, curiously enough,” Michael Conforti, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, says. “Although all nonprofits and profits are struggling, we do have a curious place in this reality.”

A snapshot of the economic fallout isn’t pretty:

  • The Las Vegas Art Museum slashed 30 percent of its budget, then closed its doors in February although its board called the closure “a hibernation” until the economy rebounds.
  • _The Art Institute of Chicago’s endowment dropped 25 percent; to keep up with costs, it boosted the price of admission 50 percent to $18, prompting city aldermen to threaten to shut down the museum’s free city water.
  • The Detroit Institute of Arts cut 20 percent of its staff, and Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum both canceled upcoming exhibitions.
  • Boston’s Museum of Fine Art has laid off 33 workers and frozen salaries for its next fiscal year as part of a plan to reduce expenses by 12 percent.
  • Expansions have been halted at the Cincinnati Art Museum and St. Louis Art Museum and a plan to build a new Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland has been postponed.

The recession has hit so hard that two museums have even done the unthinkable: In New York City, the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts, facing a $2.5 million debt, sold two artworks from its collection to cover operating costs. And in Boston, Brandeis University has proposed selling pieces of its collection, if needed, to boost the school’s falling endowment.

The outcry to those decisions was immediate and fierce, underscoring the widespread belief that museums can’t operate like ordinary businesses because of their unique role as temporary stewards of the world’s greatest works of art.

While few museums would dare to sell off their treasures, cost-cutting and restructuring has become the mantra for nearly all institutions, from the largest and richest such as the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles with a current endowment of $4.6 billion (from a high of $6 billion in 2008) to historic house museums such as The Stickley Museum in Morris Plains, N.J., with a half million dollar budget.

The Art Institute of Chicago ended upper management raises and lowered gallery temperatures; it is on tap to open a new $300 million “Modern Wing” in May, paid almost exclusively with private donations made before the economy soured. While museum officials said the hike in admission fees was not directly related to the economy, some Chicago aldermen said an increase in fees during a recession was unwise. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced it will cut 250 positions by summer and close 15 museum stores across the country.

But overall, museums are humming with activity and continuing to present major exhibitions. For now, budget cuts averaging anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent are not significantly affecting exhibitions and programs.

“The public may not see this level of cuts as significantly as the staff do themselves,” said Conforti, who is also director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., known as The Clark.

At the Met, board chairman James Houghton has affirmed the museum’s commitment to “remain a vibrant cultural resource for the widest possible audience.” Spokesman Harold Holzer said, “there’s no thought of changing hours, closing galleries, aborting the schedule” in the wake of the budget crisis.

Institutions are dusting off more works from their permanent collections to cut costs. At any given time, most museums display only 1 percent of those collections. The Brooklyn Museum, for example, just opened a major exhibition of Coptic and Pagan sculpture, drawn largely from its holdings. It is also doing more exhibitions that will travel to other museums.

One of them, titled To Live Forever, draws on its very extensive and important Egyptian collection, and is traveling to 12 museums.

“We have a whole slew of these on the road,” said director Arnold Lehman, adding that they produce revenue for the museum in fees from participating institutions. The museum declined to say how much.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York will hold a major exhibition in September on Claude Monet’s water lilies series – all from its own collection. It said it does not disclose exhibition budgets for collection shows or special loan exhibitions.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the parking lot at The Clark was full for a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition based largely on the museum’s own collection. The museum said it is the best attended show in the last eight years. Conforti said the museum found that the public’s response and reviews of the show were just as good as for temporary installations.

Visitors can still see blockbuster shows, too. In May, the Met will feature a retrospective on Francis Bacon and in June an exhibition on the ancient treasures of Afghanistan.

In October, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art will present an exhibition that explores Leonardo da Vinci’s influence on sculpture; a version of the show will travel to the Getty. The museum said it planned the exhibition before the meltdown, but that it typifies the kind of installation it always envisions being part of its yearly exhibition schedule. It is currently planning future shows that will include major exhibitions.

And even though museums such as the Brooklyn and Art Institute of Chicago recently raised admissions, directors at many other museums where admission is free vow to keep it that way, including at the Getty. The free Cincinnati Art Museum recently went a step further and stopped charging for special exhibitions.

“We wanted to be able to share those exhibitions with as many as possible, especially in these tough economic times,” said Cincinnati Art Museum Director Aaron Betsky, who has had to reduce the museum’s budget by 10 percent and lay off seven people.

Ironically, it’s the museums with the big endowments such as the Getty, which has seen a 25 percent drop in its investment portfolio, that are experiencing the most economic pain since endowments can fund as much as 70 percent of operating budgets. Less endowment-dependent museums also face budgetary shortfalls but the scenario varies from institution to institution. Generally, though, they tend to fare better as their operating budgets are largely driven by attendance and earning income.

For now, most museums are not retrenching their public programs – concerts, lectures, educational and family events, many of which are free. Perhaps emblematic of the times, the turnout has been much larger in recent months.

At the Brooklyn Museum’s free First Saturday evening events, turnout grew from 7,000 to 10,000 over the winter months. Lehman said he believed the high cost of baby-sitting during these challenging economic times has played a factor. “Parents happily bring their children to the museum and keep them up late,” he said.

To increase their visibility and engage audiences, museums are increasingly using creative marketing techniques that include social networking and blogging sites on the Internet. The Brooklyn, long known for its innovative and sometimes controversial exhibitions, recently introduced a new membership tier aimed at 20- and 30-year-olds, and upgraded its wireless connections so visitors could listen to audio tours on their cell phones.

Not everyone is able to jump on the technology bandwagon. For the Milwaukee Art Museum, the bad economy has meant delaying the purchase of iPods and a building upgrade for cell phone and Wi-Fi reception.

And the downturn has put some expansion plans on hold, including at the Cincinnati Art Museum and St. Louis Art Museum. Fundraising has slowed for a new home for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland; the museum has put the building plan on hold until there are signs of an economic rebound.

But for some, there’s a silver lining to the recession. A drop in construction costs means that the Cleveland Institute of Art will be able to break ground in May on a $50.3 million expansion. And the Miami Art Museum plans a groundbreaking by the end of the year for a new home for its collection.

In New York, the Met is reopening its American Wing in May after a two-year construction and renovation and is continuing work on a suite of galleries on Islamic art and for its Costume Institute. Meanwhile, The Indianapolis Museum of Art is going forward with the creation of a conservation science laboratory for the care and treatment of works of art in its collection. However, its September opening of a 100-acre art and nature park was postponed even though most of the funding for it had been secured.

“Better not to rush into an opening date that would have required more of the staff,” said director Max Anderson.

While endowments are shrinking, institutions report that private individual giving for annual fundraising is being largely maintained. And despite budgetary problems, directors say the overall museum experience hasn’t changed.

“What is significant is that we’re performing our mission in a very special way in light of what people need at this time – stability and continuity,” Conforti said.


Associated Press reporters Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee, Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati, Jay Lindsay in Boston, Lisa Orkin in Miami, Sophia Tareen in Chicago and Betsy Taylor in St. Louis contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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